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!

New in my Etsy Shop: Wire-wrapped Prayer Beads

I’m actually not quite sure how best to describe these, but basically they are
prayer beads made with rosary-style chain construction. Rosary-style chain is made by threading each bead separately with wire, forming a wire link on either side and joining the beads together with those links. Wire-wrapping adds extra strength and durability to the chain and the finished piece. They have a different “feel” to them in use than the other beads in my shop–kind of an apples-and-oranges thing–and they are way more time-consuming to make, but also a lot of fun.

I listed six to start:

Aphrodite

Athena

Dionysos

Hades

Hestia

Poseidon

Coming soon in my Etsy shop!

chain beads coming soon

Five Reasons to Write Prayers

While I am a writer of prayers and (like most other prayer-writers, I think) I am happy and honored whenever someone uses one of my pieces* in their practice, I am also greatly in favor of people writing their own devotional works for the gods. I don’t think it’s something you have to do, but if it is something you are at all drawn to, there are excellent reasons to give it a try.

1. They are personal.

When you write a prayer to your gods, you write it from your own point of view. It will reflect the relationship between you and the deity, and you can say things with it that just wouldn’t be there in a piece written by someone else. It can be as subtle or as direct as you want it to be.

2. They are unique.

The prayers that you write are new to the world and to the gods. The words you speak heve never been spoken before. The gods have never heard them before. A prayer you write is an entirely brand-new creation!

3. They add to the accumulated honors paid to the gods.

The gods may not need our praise and recognition, but I think that most of them like it. And I think that we need it, not just on a personal level but as a community–the more we give to the gods, the more we love and worship them, the more we are all enriched.

4. They (may) add to the resources available to the community.

You don’t have to make your writings available to others, either widely in public or on a one-on-one basis. Most people don’t. The gods receive and are honored by them regardless. But if you do choose to share your writings with others, it is a real gift to the community.

5. You learn so much!

There’s something about the act of writing that brings understanding. It is rare that I come out of a writing session without some insight into the nature of the god or gods I am writing for; writing, to me, is not only a devotional act but one that connects me to the gods like little else can.


* My prayer blogs are online and include writings for Greek, Celtic, and Norse gods.

Why I Do What I Do

Back in another life, I studied technical communication; I’ve never actually worked in the field (due to a combination of factors including settling down so very far away from anywhere it’s a viable career :)) but I’ve used what I learned quite a lot over the decades. And one thing that has stuck with me in that time is the idea that it is good to make things easier for others. To take specialized information and present it in a way that is clear and understandable.

Because everyone can’t do everything. Everyone can’t know everything. They can’t, and they shouldn’t have to.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s the religion with homework.” That’s not inherently a bad thing–I am certainly a fan of research and study and learning about the things that are important to you–but it is a thing that can keep people from approaching the gods.

Not everyone has the time or the resources or the wherewithal to engage in intense study. And they shouldn’t have to, to honor the gods.

Not everyone has the ability to devote huge chunks of their lives to their religion. And they shouldn’t have to, to honor the gods.

I used to see on various forums, when a new someone would come in and ask a question, many people reply abruptly with “Read the Eddas/Iliad/Mabinogion/etc.!” And while that’s in a way understandable (“I did the work, you can too.” “If you really want it, you’ll go the extra mile.”) it is, to me, unwelcoming.

The polytheistic faiths are not evangelistic paths, we are not (generally) active seekers of new adherents, but I don’t think it’s useful or necessary to make it more difficult than it already is for the new person. Why set up obstacles? No, we don’t owe it to anyone to spoon-feed or hand-hold, but to offer a little help isn’t that.

So, you know what? I love research and reading. I enjoy it. It’s fun. Not everyone is me. (One is enough. :)) I like comparing sources and pulling them together. And I like to write. So, this blog, where I try to take what I’ve learned and make it more accessible.

I also write prayers, which comes from a different bit of background and a less clear-cut mental place, but even there I am doing it as a maker of useful things, a provider of practical and usable information.

It’s also, for me, something I do to honor the gods. Making it easier for others to approach them, learn about them, worship them, that’s a part of what I feel called on to do as a part of my own path. Taking information that may be difficult to access and making it available, to me that feels important.

Because you shouldn’t have to be a scholar to worship the gods. You shouldn’t have to be a student or a mystic or a poet or a priest. You should be able to be just an average person with a busy life who wants to connect with the deities in whatever way they are able, and you shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it because you lack the time or the resources or the wherewithal.

New in my Etsy Shop: Goddess Prayer Beads

If you’ve read my blog you know that I honor the gods of several different pantheons in my practice. One of these is a goddess who has not (yet :)) given me a name to call her, or a specific context, cultural or otherwise, with which to approach her. So I call her “Goddess” and I keep an altar to her, with things that just feel right. (She seems to like earthy, mother-goddess imagery.)

Since I realized that I’m not the only one in this situation, I’ve decided to add Goddess Prayer Beads to my shop.

These are meant not only for those who honor an unnamed or unknown goddess, but for those who honor a nonspecific or single Goddess for any reason, and for those who honor the feminine divine.

Here’s a link to the new section: Goddess Prayer Beads

And here are some of the items I’ve just listed:

p-goddess_knotwork1_1p-goddess_nile1_1p-goddess_willendorf1_1p-goddess_green1_1

I plan to include a variety of goddess-image types because I know that Mother Earth isn’t the only such connection, but I’m starting here because it’s in my comfort zone. If you’re interested in these, and you relate best to a different sort of goddess-image, please let me know and I can try to find something more appropriate (for example, I’m currently looking for a lunar-goddess image, but have not as yet found “the one” :)).

Movable Gods

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research into the gods of continental Europe, of the areas once known as Gaul and Germania, as well as those British gods we know from history and archaeology more than from literature and myth. I have a real fondness for these deities, along with other gods who traveled.

This makes sense, honestly, for me as someone who lives a good way away from the regions my gods first made themselves known. I’m similarly interested in the ways that communities introduce new gods, and the ways that deities accompany colonists to a new region. Gods and their migrations is clearly a topic of some interest.

A lot of what little we know about the gods of Gaul and (apart from Ireland and Wales, where a mythic literature survives) Britain is based on archaeology and linguistics. What this means is that much of our knowledge is dependent on what has survived and been discovered in and on the ground, usually in the form of imagery and (Latin) text inscriptions. This included not only temples (some gods had several, most had none that survived) but also such things as votive offerings which might have inscribed on them the name of the deity receiving them, altars raised in fulfillment of a vow made to a particular deity, and place-names that appear to honor a deity or indicate the presence of a worship site. Sometimes the linguistic and archaological evidence doesn’t match up–for example, the goddess Nantosuelta’s name would indicate a river connection but her strong association with symbols of abundance and prosperity (along with her large number of likely worship sites) suggests that she is far more than a river spirit. It may be that other gods we are familiar with from fewer sources originally had a wider range of associations than we know of as well.

In some cases a god was known across a wide geographical area. Epona was one such–the Romans themselves adopted her and there is, uniquely, evidence of her worship in Rome itself–but other gods were known in different regions as well, such as Belenos, Sirona, or Rosmerta. Others were most well-known in a particular area–for example, as goddess of the river Seine, Sequana tended to be worshipped most often near that river. Still others, tribal deities, have been attested primarily in regions where those tribes existed, although tribal territories sometimes moved and their gods did likewise. There are also gods we know of only from a single inscription or other archaeological find.

Here I’m going to talk a bit about Rome. I’m not myself (at least at this point in time–I’ve learned over the years to never say never) a follower of the Roman gods. Partly this is a conscious choice in that the Romans were very particular and detail-oriented about their worship, and I don’t think I’m personally a good match for that sort of system; partly I suspect it’s because I am already so connected with the Greek gods, and the Greek and Roman pantheons have a very complex relationship.

But about Rome. The Romans were travelers, that is one way to put it. On their travels they encountered many people, and along with these people they encountered their gods. And when it came to gods, the Romans had this thing called the interpretatio romano, which means, essentially, that they saw the gods they encountered as being their own Roman gods under different names. So if they ran across a Celtic god who was a healer, they figured that he was Apollo; if they found a war god, they assumed he was Mars, and so forth. So, Apollo Grannus is the Celtic god Grannus by way of the interpretatio romano. Mars Leucetius is the deity formerly known as Leucetius. And so on. (So, if this is the way your polytheism rolls, there is certainly precedent for it. :))

This was more common with male deities, although sometimes a Celtic goddess was associated with a Roman one (such as Sulis Minerva, patron goddess of the healing springs of what we now know as Bath). But often the Romans would take a Celtic deity couple, such as Borvo and Damona, and only the male deity would be given a Roman name to add on–thus, at some sites Borvo might become Apollo Borvo while Damona remained simply Damona.

To some extent the interpretatio romana is helpful to us in that it provides a bit of context that would otherwise be missing, since we lack a lot of information on Gaulish gods; knowing that, say, the Celtic Cissonius was known to the Romans as Mercury Cissonius lets us know that the Romans believed that Cissonius had something in common with the Roman god Mercury. On the other hand, we have no way of knowing exactly why the Romans thought that Cissonius was Mercury–Mercury has many associations including commerce, communication, and travel, and we don’t know which of these attributes may also have applied to Cissonius.

On the other other hand, it’s certainly arguable that becoming identified with Mercury made some changes to Cissonius’ character, and that Mercury Cissonius was a subtly different entity (or, at least, took a different role) than the “original” Cissonius. But that’s not quite what I meant to write about here, so I’ll let it pass for now.

Another thing the Romans did on their travels was grow their empire. Over the centuries the Roman Empire expanded from Rome itself all the way to Britain, on the way taking over great parts of Gaul, adding their lands to the Roman territories, and taking their citizens as part of their army.

These Gaulish soldiers took their own gods along with them when they travelled with the Roman army to other parts of the Roman Empire. Thus, when we have evidence of gods being worshipped in a variety of regions, we don’t necessarily know how that came to be, although in some cases (for example, when a god known to exist in what is now Germany is also attested at a Roman military site in northern Britain) it does seem to indicate that a soldier may have brought his gods along with him to his new posting.

So the issue here, for me, isn’t whether a god can move from one geographic region to another. Clearly there is evidence that the ancients believed that they could. It’s more a matter of how this happens–and of what happens when a god who was once strongly associated with a place is honored in a different place. For example, it seems likely that a healer goddess retains that ability whether or not she is called on at her own healing springs–the British Coventina, known for a spring near Hadrian’s Wall, is also attested in what is now France and Spain.

My own sense is that gods may begin as gods of place, but they don’t necessarily stay that way.