Greek Hymns Honoring the Divine in Female Form
“Nature, mother goddess of all… almighty one… primordial… law-giver of the gods… Leader, ruler bringing life… Destiny and fate, fiery breath…”
These phrases belong to the Orphic Hymn to Nature (Physis in Greek, from which the words physics and physical derive). It’s hard to find a more telling description of the Divine Female’s immense powers in all of the Hellenic literature!
The Orphic Hymns form a collection of 87 poems, each one dedicated to a specific deity. They were used in the rituals of a group practicing a mystery religion, most probably in Asia Minor. Those initiated in the Orphic Mysteries claimed Orpheus as their founder — he was the most famous legendary musician of Greece, son of the Muse Kalliope (Calliope), and husband of Eurudike (Eurydice). His existence (real or imagined) is shrouded in the mists of a mythical past, but his followers were active from the 6th century BCE on.
The dating of the hymns is a controversial subject. Some scholars think they were composed in the late Hellenistic era (3rd-2nd c. BCE), while others place them in Roman times, in the 1st-3rd century CE. However, it seems quite likely that the content of these verses is based on much older material.
The powerful presence of goddesses in the Orphic collection is unquestionable — out of 87 poems 41 are dedicated to female deities, many of whom are also mentioned in the hymns to gods. Olympian figures, like Demeter and Aphrodite, are highly praised, often in unexpected ways:
Everything from you derives; you yoked
the world and rule over three realms,
giving birth to all that is in heaven,
on the fruitful earth, in the ocean depths…
(Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite, 4-7)
Moreover, some of the poems honor primordial goddesses of nature, such as Gaia, Nyx (Night), Selene (the personification of the moon) and Tethys, an old and venerable sea deity. They also praise Rhea-Cybele, the orgiastic “Mother of Gods and human beings” (14, 9; cf. 27, 1, 7). The goddess of justice in her diverse forms, as Dike, Dikaiosune and Nemesis, also figures prominently in the collection.
Could this highly important role of female divinities reflect the significance of women in the group using the Orphic Hymns? We certainly know that women participated enthusiastically in most of the mystery religions of the ancient world; it seems that the Orphic one was no exception, in spite of certain misogynist elements present in it. We might wonder then if some of these verses, whose poets remain anonymous, could have been written by female authors. Why not, after all? Hellenistic women, like Anyte, Nossis and Moiro, are often delighted to mention and praise goddesses in their poems.
One way or another, it is exciting to see female deities honored in such a whole-hearted and fascinating way as revealed in the Orphic texts. Above all, the Hymn to Nature brings to light the age-old Mother Goddess of many names, the supreme Creatress, “dancing with whirling noiseless feet” her eternal dance of life and growth…
Orphic Hymn to Nature
Nature, mother goddess of all,
ingenious mother, crone!
Creatress of many, sovereign
ruler, all-taming, always untamed.
Celestial, all-shining, almighty one,
+ * honored and supreme in every way,
imperishable, primordial, first-born.
Praised by people, seasoned and wild,
nocturnal, light-bringer, dancing
with whirling noiseless feet.
Pure, law-giver of the gods,
unending and the end,
shared by all, yet
desired and sublime
full of lovely flowers, delightful one.
Friendly and knowing,
weaving, mixed with many things.
Leader, ruler bringing life,
maiden who nurtures all.
Self-sufficient, lady of justice!
You of many names
the Kharites obey.
Protectress of the air,
of land and sea,
bitter to the wicked,
to the obedient sweet.
All-wise, all-giving, care-taker, queen of all,
growth-bringer, fertile, ripener of fruit.
Father and mother of all,
nurturer and nurse,
giver of swift births.
Force of the seasons,
fruitful one and blessed!
Giver of all arts, creator, many things
you shape, setting all in motion,
eternal, + goddess of the sea.
Prudent and skilled,
in everlasting swirl whirling the swift
flow, ever-flowing, moving
in cycles, shape shifting.
Seated on a fine throne,
honored, you alone
decide, being far above those
who scepters hold.
fearless and strong,
force that tames all.
Destiny and fate, fiery breath,
eternal life, immortal providence;
all + is in you, + since
you alone create.
Goddess, to you I pray:
bring + in rich + seasons, peace,
growth to all and health.
Author’s Note: *The symbol + indicates that the manuscript is worn out at this point, hence the words cannot be read clearly and their interpretation is uncertain.
The essay was published in the anthology She Is Everywhere! Vol. 3, edited by Mary Saracino and Mary Beth Moser (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2012). This book has been awarded the 2013 Enheduanna Award for Excellence in Women-Centered Literature. The anthology was also honored by the California Institute of Integral Studies with a Women’s Spirituality book award in 2018. It will be part of the institute’s 25th Anniversary Library Collection of 100 best books in Women’s Spirituality.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Athanassakis, Apostolos N. The Orphic Hymns: Text, Translation and Notes. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1988.
Guthrie, W.K.C. Orpheus and Greek Religion. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1993.
Long, Asphodel P. In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: The Search of the Female in Deity. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1993.
—. “Orphic Hymns.” Arachne 9. 1989. Available online, http://www.asphodel-long.com/html/orphic_hymns.html.
Mystical Hymns of Orpheus. 2nd ed. Translated by Thomas Taylor. Chiswick: 1824. Reprinted by Kessinger. Available online, http://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns1.html.
Orphic Hymns. 3rd ed. Τranslated by D. P. Papaditsas and Helen Ladia. Athens: “Hestia” Bookstore, 1997.
Snyder, Jane McIntosh. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1989.
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