The Importance of Orphic Hymns

Why are the Orphic Hymns important to understanding Ancient Greek Religion? These hymns offer us variations of the Pan-Hellenic tradition. We can see the way ancient Greeks formed a Pan-Hellenic identity over the expanse 8th century and beyond, because these variations are recorded. They are local traditions. I say local because they are not Pan-Hellenic and therefore must be important to a smaller group, a more localized group, of Greeks during their time. 

Whereas the Pan-Hellenic tradition strives to create a cosmos (Versnel 2015) that is acceptable to all poleis in general while not entirely adhering to one specifically (See Nagy 1990), the Orphic hymns represent those ideas that were not acceptable to the poleis influence. I am still studying what the nature of this editing process was and hope to discover through this venture very early Greek religious thought. In the meantime, below are a few hymns which offer variations in the myth of Demeter, Persephone, Hades, and the establishment of the Mysteries at Eleusis. One might note that Zeus, or some idea of Zeus-esque justice, is found in all the hymns but is never the subject of the passage.

If any conclusion can be made concerning the appearance of the most Pan-Hellenic god in the localized variations of these myths it is that, to the author, Zeus’s role was not as important as those of the others.  Some these hymns, such as Hymn 18, bring different questions to light: what does one want to summon Hades for? Who were the people honoring Hades and why?

To Pluton, 18

Oh Fearless One, who dwells in the house under the earth,
in Tartarian and deeply shaded dark fields,
Chthonian Zeus, Staff Bearer, take this holy sacrifice eagerly.
Pluto, you who holds under the earth the keys to everything
you who make mortal men rich with fruits of the years passing.
You who obtained the Earth, Queen of Everything, the dwelling of the gods, the mighty foundation of mortal men, as his third part.
You who set his throne under the darkly shaped earth, Far-Reaching,
Untiring, Breathless (dead), unpredictable Hades
and darkly veil Acheron, you who dwells at the roots of the earth.
You who rules mortals because of death, oh Eubulus Polydectes,
who made a wife of the child of sacred Demeter
and dragged her away from the meadow through the sea
under Atthis in a cave with four- horses
at the deme of Eleusis, where the gates of Hades are.
You alone shown as judge and made visible of work unseen,
Possessing, Almighty One, Most Hallowed, brilliantly honored,
august heavenly initiator be glad in your majesty.
Graciously I call you up to come and take pleasure in your initiates.

Εἰς Πλούτωνα.
῏Ω τὸν ὑποχθόνιον ναίων δόμον, ὀμβριμόθυμε,
Ταρτάριον λειμῶνα βαθύσκιον ἠδὲ λιπαυγῆ,
Ζεῦ χθόνιε, σκηπτοῦχε, τάδ’ ἱερὰ δέξο προθύμως,
Πλούτων, ὃς κατέχεις γαίης κληῖδας ἁπάσης,
πλουτοδοτῶν γενεὴν βροτέην καρποῖς ἐνιαυτῶν·
ὃς τριτάτης μοίρης ἔλαχες χθόνα παμβασίλειαν,
ἕδρανον ἀθανάτων, θνητῶν στήριγμα κραταιόν·
ὃς θρόνον ἐστήριξας ὑπὸ ζοφοειδέα χῶρον
τηλέπορον τ’, ἀκάμαντα, λιπόπνοον, ἄκριτον ῞Αιδην
κυάνεόν τ’ ᾿Αχέρονθ’, ὃς ἔχει ῥιζώματα γαίης·
ὃς κρατέεις θνητῶν θανάτου χάριν, ὦ πολυδέγμων
Εὔβουλ’, ἁγνοπόλου Δημήτερος ὅς ποτε παῖδα
νυμφεύσας λειμῶνος ἀποσπαδίην διὰ πόντου
τετρώροις ἵπποισιν ὑπ’ ᾿Ατθίδος ἤγαγες ἄντρον
δήμου ᾿Ελευσῖνος, τόθι περ πύλαι εἴσ’ ᾿Αίδαο.
μοῦνος ἔφυς ἀφανῶν ἔργων φανερῶν τε βραβευτής,
ἔνθεε, παντοκράτωρ, ἱερώτατε, ἀγλαότιμε,
σεμνοῖς μυστιπόλοις χαίρων ὁσίοις τε σεβασμοῖς·
ἵλαον ἀγκαλέω σε μολεῖν κεχαρηότα μύσταις.

Hymn 29 is one inspired by the return of spring. It too offers variations on the representation of Persephone. Here she is the most important goddess of the Pantheon and highly honored in contrast to her father Zeus. She is the Εὐμενίδων γενέτειρα Mother of the Furies and should be feared, yet she is the φαεσφόρε the Light -Bringer and is hoped for by all mortal men. To the author she is the giver of life and bringer of death.

Hymn of Persephone, 29

Persephone, Daughter of Great Zeus, come! Blessed one,
Singly-Born Goddess, receive these things which are pleasing to you,
Wife of Much Honored Pluto, Wise One, Giver of Life,
you who dwells beyond the gates of Hades under the depths of the Earth,
Praxidike, With lovely braids, Holy Child of Demeter
Mother of the Furies, Our Lady Underground,
The daughter whom Zeus created in secret tryst
Mother of Loud Thundering many-formed Eubulus,
playmate of the seasons, Light-Bringer, Brilliant in form,
you are Holy, Almighty, the daughter who brings fruits to bursting,
you are bright, horned, only you are longed for by men,
Vernal One, who takes pleasure in meadowy breezes,
reveal the holy form with green shoots that you have yet to sprout,
Ravished after being given in autumnal marriage,
Persephone alone is life and death to much-toiling mortals,
you nourish (them) forever, and you kill (them) all.
Hear this, Great Goddess, and send again the fruits over the earth
causing them to flourish with peace and a soothing hand of heath
that one may live life richly shiny as with oil unto old age
then to your place go down, my Lady, and the place of powerful Pluto.

Orphic Hymn 29
῞Υμνος Περσεφόνης.
Φερσεφόνη, θύγατερ μεγάλου Διός, ἐλθέ, μάκαιρα,
μουνογένεια θεά, κεχαρισμένα δ’ ἱερὰ δέξαι,
Πλούτωνος πολύτιμε δάμαρ, κεδνή, βιοδῶτι,
ἣ κατέχεις ᾿Αίδαο πύλας ὑπὸ κεύθεα γαίης,
Πραξιδίκη, ἐρατοπλόκαμε, Δηοῦς θάλος ἁγνόν,
Εὐμενίδων γενέτειρα, ὑποχθονίων βασίλεια,
ἣν Ζεὺς ἀρρήτοισι γοναῖς τεκνώσατο κούρην,
μῆτερ ἐριβρεμέτου πολυμόρφου Εὐβουλῆος,
῾Ωρῶν συμπαίκτειρα, φαεσφόρε, ἀγλαόμορφε,
σεμνή, παντοκράτειρα, κόρη καρποῖσι βρύουσα,
εὐφεγγής, κερόεσσα, μόνη θνητοῖσι ποθεινή,
εἰαρινή, λειμωνιάσιν χαίρουσα πνοῆισιν,
ἱερὸν ἐκφαίνουσα δέμας βλαστοῖς χλοοκάρποις,
ἁρπαγιμαῖα λέχη μετοπωρινὰ νυμφευθεῖσα,
ζωὴ καὶ θάνατος μούνη θνητοῖς πολυμόχθοις,
Φερσεφόνη· φέρβεις γὰρ ἀεὶ καὶ πάντα φονεύεις.
κλῦθι, μάκαιρα θεά, καρποὺς δ’ ἀνάπεμπ’ ἀπὸ γαίης
εἰρήνηι θάλλουσα καὶ ἠπιοχείρωι ὑγείαι
καὶ βίωι εὐόλβωι λιπαρὸν γῆρας κατάγοντι
πρὸς σὸν χῶρον, ἄνασσα, καὶ εὐδύνατον Πλούτωνα.

The third hymn offered here is Hymn 41 to the “Mother Besought by Prayers”. This hymn follows the Pan-Hellenic tradition by pointing to Eleusis as the epicenter of the myth and even describes the far wandering and grieving Demeter. It also deviates, however, when Demeter herself walks down into Hades taking as a guide a man to whom she gifted god-hood. 

Orphic Hymn 41

The Mother Besought by Prayers, fragrant incense.
Queen besought by prayers, Goddess, Mother of Many names
from the undying gods and mortal humans,
When you began the great wandering seeking in grief,
you suddenly stopped the hunger and in the hollows of Eleusis
you walked into Hades toward illustrious Persephone
the holy child of Dysaulos taking as a guide,
a guide to the hallowed bed of holy Chthonian Zeus,
she who made Eubulus a god from his mortal condition.
But, Goddess, I beg you, Queen to whom many prayers are offered,
Graciously come near your holy servant.

Μητρὸς ᾿Ανταίας, θυμίαμα ἀρώματα.
᾿Ανταία βασίλεια, θεά, πολυώνυμε μῆτερ
ἀθανάτων τε θεῶν ἠδὲ θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων,
ἥ ποτε μαστεύουσα πολυπλάγκτωι ἐν ἀνίηι
νηστείαν κατέπαυσας ᾿Ελευσῖνος ἐν γυάλοισιν
ἦλθές τ’ εἰς ᾿Αίδην πρὸς ἀγαυὴν Περσεφόνειαν
ἁγνὸν παῖδα Δυσαύλου ὁδηγητῆρα λαβοῦσα,
μηνυτῆρ’ ἁγίων λέκτρων χθονίου Διὸς ἁγνοῦ,
Εὔβουλον τεύξασα θεὸν θνητῆς ἀπ’ ἀνάγκης.
ἀλλά, θεά, λίτομαί σε, πολυλλίστη βασίλεια,
ἐλθεῖν εὐάντητον ἐπ’ εὐιέρωι σέο μύστηι.

“Orpheus,” Roelant Savery 1628

Christopher Makauskas is a graduate student in the Classics Department at Brandeis University with a  BA in History from the University of North Florida. His research focuses on ancient Greek religion, Pan-Hellenism, and the Archaic Period. He can be found on twitter @Chrmakau