Ancient Hymns and Poetry

Aristophanes, Choral Ode to Iakchos from The Frogs

Iakchos, much-loved resident of these quarters,
– Iakchos, O Iakchos! –
come to this field for the dance
with your holy followers,
setting in motion the crown
which sits on your head, thick
with myrtle-berries, boldly stamping the beat
with your foot in the unrestrained
fun-loving celebration –
the dance overflowing with grace,
dance sacred to the holy initiates!

Wake the fiery torches which you brandish in your hands,
– Iakchos, O Iakchos! –
brilliant star of the all-night celebration!
The meadow is aflame with light;
old men’s knees cavort!
They shake off the pain
of long years in old age
in their holy excitement.
Hold your light aloft
and lead the youthful chorus, Lord,
to the lush flowers of the sacred ground!

Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (fragment)

For some say, at Dracanum;
and some, on windy Icarus;
and some, in Naxos, O Heaven-born, Insewn;
and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheios
that pregnant Semele bare you to Zeus the thunder-lover.
And others yet, lord, say you were born in Thebes;
but all these lie.

The Father of men and gods gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoenike, near the streams of Aigyptos.

… and men will lay up for her many offerings in her shrines. And as these things are three, so shall mortals ever sacrifice perfect hecatombs to you at your feasts each three years.’
The Son of Kronos spoke and nodded with his dark brows.
And the divine locks of the king flowed forward from his immortal head,
and he made great Olympus reel.

So spake wise Zeus and ordained it with a nod.

Be favourable, O Insewn,
Inspirer of frenzied women!
We singers sing of you as we begin and as we end a strain,
and none forgetting you may call holy song to mind.
And so, farewell, Dionysos, Insewn,
with your mother Semele whom men call Thyone.

Homeric Hymn 7. To Dionysos

I will tell of Dionysos, the son of glorious Semele,
how he appeared on a jutting headland by the shore of the fruitless sea,
seeming like a stripling in the first flush of manhood:
his rich, dark hair was waving about him,
and on his strong shoulders he wore a purple robe.

Presently there came swiftly over the sparkling sea
Tyrsenian pirates on a well-decked ship —
a miserable doom led them on.
When they saw him they made signs to one another
and sprang out quickly, and seizing him straightway,
put him on board their ship exultingly;
for they thought him the son of heaven-nurtured kings.

They sought to bind him with rude bonds,
but the bonds would not hold him,
and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet:
and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes.
Then the helmsman understood all
and cried out at once to his fellows and said:

‘Madmen! What god is this whom you have taken and bind, strong that he is? Not even the well-built ship can carry him. Surely this is either Zeus or Apollo who has the silver bow, or Poseidon, for he looks not like mortal men but like the gods who dwell on Olympus. Come, then, let us set him free upon the dark shore at once: do not lay hands on him, lest he grow angry and stir up dangerous winds and heavy squalls.’

So said he: but the master chid him with taunting words:

‘Madman, mark the wind and help hoist sail on the ship: catch all the sheets. As for this fellow we men will see to him: I reckon he is bound for Egypt or for Cyprus or to the Hyperboreans or further still. But in the end he will speak out and tell us his friends and all his wealth and his brothers, now that providence has thrown him in our way.’

When he had said this, he had mast and sail hoisted on the ship,
and the wind filled the sail and the crew hauled taut the sheets on either side. But soon strange things were seen among them.

First of all sweet, fragrant wine ran streaming throughout all the black ship and a heavenly smell arose, so that all the seamen were seized with amazement when they saw it. And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands. When the pirates saw all this, then at last they bade the helmsman to put the ship to land.

But the god changed into a dreadful lion there on the ship, in the bows, and roared loudly: amidships also he showed his wonders and created a shaggy bear which stood up ravening, while on the forepeak was the lion glaring fiercely with scowling brows.

And so the sailors fled into the stern and crowded bemused about the right-minded helmsman, until suddenly the lion sprang upon the master and seized him; and when the sailors saw it they leapt out overboard one and all into the bright sea, escaping from a miserable fate, and were changed into dolphins.

But on the helmsman Dionysos had mercy and held him back and made him altogether happy, saying to him, ‘Take courage, good… you have found favour with my heart. I am loud-crying Dionysos whom Kadmos’ daughter Semele bare of union with Zeus.’

Hail, child of fair-faced Semele! He who forgets you can in no wise order sweet song.

Homeric Hymn 26. To Dionysos

I begin to sing of ivy-crowned Dionysos, the loud-crying god,
splendid son of Zeus and glorious Semele.
The rich-haired Nymphs received him in their bosoms
from the lord his father and fostered and nurtured him
carefully in the dells of Nysa,
where by the will of his father he grew up in a sweet-smelling cave,
being reckoned among the immortals.
But when the goddesses had brought him up, a god oft hymned,
then began he to wander continually through the woody coombes,
thickly wreathed with ivy and laurel.
And the Nymphs followed in his train with him for their leader;
and the boundless forest was filled with their outcry.
And so hail to you, Dionysos, god of abundant clusters!
Grant that we may come again rejoicing to this season,
and from that season onwards for many a year.

Orphic Hymn 6. To Protogonos
Incense: Myrrh

Upon two-natured, great and ether-tossed Protogonos I call;
Born of the egg, delighting in his golden wings he bellows like a bull,
This begetter of blessed gods and mortal men.
Erikepaios, seed unforgettable, attend to my rites,
Ineffable, hidden, brilliant scion, whose motion is whirring,
You scattered the dark mist that lay before your eyes,
and, flapping your wings, you whirled about
and throughout this world, you brought pure light.
For this I call you Phanes and lord Priapos and bright-eyed Antauges.
But, O blessed one of many counsels and seeds,
Come gladly to the celebrants of this holy and elaborate rite.

Orphic Hymn 30. To Dionysos
Incense: Storax

I call upon loud-roaring and reveling Dionysos, primeval, two-natured,
Thrice-born Bacchic lord, savage,
ineffable, two-horned and two-shaped.
Ivy-cover, bull-faced, warlike, howling, pure, you take raw flesh,
You have triennial feasts, wrapt in foliage, decked with grape clusters.
Resourceful Eubouleus, immortal god sired by Zeus,
When he mated with Persephone in unspeakable union.
Hearken to my voice, O blessed one, and with your fair-girdled nurses,
Breathe on me in spirit of perfect kindness.

Orphic Hymn 42. To Mise
Incense: Storax

I call upon law-giving Dionysos who carries the fennel stalk,
unforgettable and many-named seed of Eubouleus,
and upon holy, sacred and ineffable queen Mise,
whose two-fold nature is male and female.
As redeeming Iacchos, I summon you lord,
whether you delight in your fragrant temple at Eleusis,
or with the Mother you partake of mystic rites in Phrygia,
or you rejoice in Cyprus with fair-wreathed Kythereia,
or yet you exult in hallowed wheat-bearing fields along Egypt’s river,
with your divine mother, the august black-robed Isis,
and your triad of nurses.
Lady, kindheartedly come to those contesting for noble prizes.

Orphic Hymn 45. Hymn to Dionysos, Bassareus and Triennial

Come, blessed Dionysos, bull-faced god conceived in fire,
Bassareus and Bacchos, many-named master of all.
You delight in bloody swords and in the holy maenads,
As you howl throughout Olympos, O roaring and frenzied Bacchos.
Armed with the thyrsus and wrathful in extreme, you are honored
By all the gods and by all the men who dwell on earth.
Come, blessed and leaping god, and bring much joy to all.

Orphic Hymn 46. To Liknites
Incense: Powdered Frankincense

I summon to these prayers Dionysos Liknites, born at Nysa,
Blossoming, beloved and kindly Bacchos,
Nursling of the nymphs and fair-wreathed Aphrodite.
The forest once felt your feet quiver in the dance,
As frenzy drove you and the graceful nymphs on,
And the counsels of Zeus brought you to noble Persephone,
Who reared you to be loved by the deathless gods.
Kind-heartedly come, O blessed one, and accept the gift of this sacrifice.

Orphic Hymn 47. Perikionios
Incense: Aromatic Herbs

I call upon Bacchos Perikionios, giver of wine,
Who enveloped all of Kadmos’ house and with his might,
Checked and calmed the heaving earth when the blazing thunderbolt,
And the raging gale stirred all the land.
Then everyone’s bonds sprang loose.
Blessed reveler, come with joyous heart.

Orphic Hymn 50. To Lysios-Lenaios

Hear, O blessed son of Zeus and of two mothers,
Bacchos of the vintage, unforgettable seed,
many-named and redeeming demon,
Holy offspring of the gods born in secrecy, reveling Bacchos,
Plump giver of the many joys of fruits which grow well.
Mighty and many-shaped god,
from the earth you burst forth to reach the wine-press,
And there become a remedy for man’s pain, O sacred blossom!
A sorrow-hating joy to mortals, O lovely-haired Epaphian,
You are a redeemer and a reveler whose thyrsus drive to frenzy,
And who is kind hearted to all, gods and mortals, who see his light.
I call upon you now to come, a sweet bringer of fruit.

Orphic Hymn 52. To the God of the Triennial Feast
Incense: Aromatic Herbs

I call upon you, blessed, many-named and frenzied Bacchos,
Bull-horned Nysian redeemer, god of the wine-press, conceived in fire.
Nourished in the thigh, O Lord of the Cradle,
You marshal torch-lit processions in the night,
O filleted and thyrsus-shaking Eubouleus.
Threefold is your nature and ineffable your rites,
O secret offspring of Zeus.
Primeval, Erikepaios, father and son of gods,
You take raw flesh, and, sceptered,
you lead into the madness of revel and dance
In the frenzy of triennial feasts that bestow calm on us.
You burst forth from the earth in a blaze… O son of two mothers,
And, horned and clad in fawnskin, you roam the mountains,
O lord worshiped in annual feasts.
Paian of the golden spear, nursling, decked with grapes,
Bassaros, exulting in ivy, followed by many maidens…
Joyous and all-abounding, come, O blessed one to the initiates.

Orphic Hymn 53. To the God of the Annual Feast
Incense: all other things save frankincense- a libation of milk too.

I call upon the Bacchos we worship annually, chthonic Dionysos,
Who, together with the fair-tressed nymphs, is roused.
In the sacred halls of Persephone he slumbers,
And puts to sleep pure, Bacchic time every third year.
When he himself stirs up the triennial revel again he sings a hymn,
Accompanied by his fair-girdled nurses,
And, as the seasons revolve he puts to sleep and wakes up the years.
But, O blessed and fruit-giving Bacchos,
O horned spirit of the unripe fruit,
Come to this most sacred rite with the glow of joy on your face,
Come all-abounding in fruit that is holy and perfect.

Ovid, Hymn from The Metamorphoses

We call on Bacchus by his many noble names
Lyaeus, Bromius; child of flaming fire;
alone twice mothered and alone twice born;
great lord and planter of the genial grape;
Nyseus too, and Lenaeus and Thyoneus,
whose locks are never shorn;
Nyctelius, Iacchus, Euhan, father Eleleus;
and all the countless titles that are yours, Liber,
throughout the lands of Greece.

Philodamos’ Paian to Dionysos

I. Come here, Lord Dithyrambos, Bakchos, god of jubilation, Bull, with a crown of ivy in your hair, Roarer, oh come in this holy season of spring – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! Once upon a time, in ecstatic Thebes, Thyona bore you to Zeus and became mother of a beautiful son. All immortals started dancing, all mosrtals rejoicing at your birth, o bacchic god. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.

II. On that day Kadmos’ famous country jumped up in bacchic revelry, the vale of the Minyans, too, and fertile Euboia – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! Brimful with hymns, the holy and blessed country of Delphi was dancing. And you yourself, you revealed you starry shape, taking position on the crags of Parnassos, accompanied by Delphic maidens. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.

III. Swinging your firebrand in your hand – light in the darkness of night – you arrived in your enthusiastic frenzy in the flower-covered vale of Eleusis – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! There the entire Greek nation, surrounding the indigenous witnesses of the holy Mysteries, invokes you as Iakchos: you have opened for mankind a haven, relief from suffering. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.


V. From that blessed country you came to the cities of Thessaly, to the sacred domain of Olympos and famous Pieria – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! and forthwith did the Muses crown themselves with ivy; they all sang and danced around you, proclaiming you to be ‘Forever immortal and famous Paian’! Apollo had taken the lead in this dance. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.


IX. The god commands the Amphiktyons to execute the action with speed, so that he who shoots from afar may restrain his anger – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! – and to present this hymn for his brother to the family of the gods, on the occasion of the annual feast of hospitality, and to make a public sacrifice on the occasion of the panhellenic supplications of blessed Hellas. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.

X. O blessed and fortunate the generation of those mortals who build for Lord Apollo, a never-decaying, never-to-be-defiled temple – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! – a golden temple with golden sculptures where the goddesses encircle Paian, his hair shining in ivory, adorned with an indigenous wreath. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.

XI. To the organizers of his quadrennial Pythian Festival the god has given the command to establish in honour of Bakchos a sacrifice and a competition of many dithyrambs – euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian! – and to erect an attractive statue of Bakchos like the bright beams of the rising sun, standing on a chariot drawn by golden lions and to furnish a grotto suitable to the holy god. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.

XII. Come on then, and welcome Dionysos, god of the bakchants, and call upon him in your streets with dances performed by people with ivy in their hair who sing ‘Euhoi, o io Bakchos, o ie Paian!’ All over blessed Hellas…dithyrambs. Hail thou, Lord of Health. – Ie Paian, come o Saviour, and kindly keep this city in happy prosperity.

Pindar, Dithyramb to Dionysos

Come here to our dance, Olympian gods,
and bestow upon it your famous beauty,
you who are accustomed to visit in holy Athens the navel of the city,
where people throng and incense in burnt,
and also the renowned market-place,
which shows on all sides the products of its artists.
Take your share of wreaths, bound with violets,
and of spring-plucked songs.
Be my audience, now that I,
having taken my start from Zeus,
have travelled here a second time with splendour of songs
towards the god who is expert in ivy,
whom we mortals call Roarer and Loud-shouting
whenever we celebrate him,
offspring of the Supreme Father and of the Kadmeian Lady.
Like a seer, I perceive the distinct signs which tell
when the chamber of the purple-robed Horai opens
and honey-sweet plants introduce fragrant spring.
This, this is when people scatter lovely petals of violets
on immortal earth and mingle roses with their locks;
when voices of songs resound, accompanied by pipes,
and choruses approach crown-wearing Semele…

Seneca, Hymn from The Oedipus

Let the people’s hymn sound with the praise of Bacchus.
Bind your streaming locks with the nodding ivy,
and in your soft hands grasp the Nysaean thyrsus!
Bright glory of the sky, come hither to the prayers
which thine own illustrious Thebes, O Bacchus,
offers to thee with suppliant hands.
Hither turn with favour thy virginal face;
with thy star-bright countenance drive away the clouds,
the grim threats of Erebus, and greedy fate.
Thee it becomes to circle thy locks with flowers of the springtime,
thee to cover thy head with Tyrian turban,
or thy smooth brow to wreathe with the ivy’s clustering berries;
now to fling loose thy lawless-streaming locks,
again to bind them in a knot close-drawn;
in such guise as when, fearing thy stepdame’s wrath,
thou didst grow to manhood with false-seeming limbs,
a pretended maiden with golden ringlets,
with saffron girdle binding thy garments.
So thereafter this soft vesture has pleased thee,
folds loose hanging and the long-trailing mantle.
Seated in thy golden chariot,
thy lions with long trappings covered,
all the vast coast of the Orient saw thee,
both he who drinks of the Ganges and whoever breaks the ice of snowy Araxes.

On an unseemly ass old Silenus attends thee,
his swollen temples bound with ivy garlands;
while thy wanton initiates lead the mystic revels.
Along with thee a troop of Bassarids in Edonian dance beat the ground,
now on Mount Pangaeus’ peak,
now on the top of Thracian Pindus;
now midst Cadmean dames has come a maenad,
the impious comrade of Ogygian Bacchus,
with sacred fawn-skins girt about her loins,
her hand a light thyrsus brandishing.
Their hearts maddened by thee,
the matrons have set their hair a-flowing;
and at length, after the rending of Pentheus’ limbs,
the Bacchanals, their bodies now freed from the frenzy,
looked on their infamous deed as though they knew it not.
Cadmean Ino, foster-mother of shining Bacchus,
holds the realms of the deep,
encircled by bands of Nereids dancing;
over the waves of the mighty deep a boy holds sway,
new come, the kinsman of Bacchus, no common god, Palaemon.

Thee, O boy, a Tyrrhenian band once captured
and Nereus allayed the swollen sea;
the dark blue waters he changed to meadows.
Thence flourish the plane-tree with vernal foliage
and the laurel-grove dear to Phoebus;
the chatter of birds sounds loud through the branches.
Fast-growing ivy clings to the oars,
and grape-vines twine at the mast-head.
On the prow an Idaean lion roars;
at the stern crouches a tiger of Ganges.
Then the frightened pirates swim in the sea,
and plunged in the water their bodies assume new forms:
the robbers’ arms first fall away;
their breasts smite their bellies and are joined in one;
a tiny hand comes down at the side;
with curving back they dive into the waves,
and with crescent-shaped tail they cleave the sea;
and now as curved dolphins they follow the fleeing sails.

On its rich stream has Lydian Pactolus borne thee,
leading along its burning banks the golden waters;
the Massgetan who mingles blood with milk in his goblets
has unstrung his vanquished bow and given up his Getan arrows;
the realms of axe-wielding Lycurgus have felt the dominion of Bacchus;
the fierce lands of the Zalaces have felt it,
and those wandering tribes whom neighbouring Boreas smites,
and the nations which Maeotis’ cold water washes,
and they on whom the Arcadian constellation looks down
from the zenith and the wagons twain.
He has subdued the scattered Gelonians;
he has wrested their arms form the warrior maidens;
with downcast face they fell to earth,
those Thermodontian hordes,
gave up at length their light arrows, and became maenads.
Sacred Cithaeron has flowed with the blood of Ophionian slaughter;
the Proetides fled to the woods, and Argos,
in his stepdame’s very presence,
paid homage to Bacchus.

Naxos, girt by the Aegean sea,
gave him in marriage a deserted maiden,
compensating her loss with a better husband.
Out of the dry rock there gushed Nyctelian liquor;
babbling rivulets divided the grassy meadows;
deep the earth drank in the sweet juices,
white fountains of snowy milk and Lesbian wine
mingled with fragrant thyme.
The new-made bride is led to the lofty heavens;
Phoebus a stately anthem sings,
with his locks flowing down his shoulders,
and twin Cupides brandish their torches.
Jupiter lays aside his fiery weapons and,
when Bacchus comes, abhors his thunderbolt.

While the bright stars of the ancient heavens shall run in their courses;
while Oceanus shall encircle the imprisoned earth with its waters;
while full Luna gather again her lost radiance;
while Lucifer shall herald the dawn of the morning
and while the lofty Bears shall know naught of caerulean Nereus;
so long shall we worship the shining face of beauteous Lyaeus.

Sophokles, Choral Ode from the Antigone

God of the many names, Semele’s golden child,
child of Olympian thunder, Italy’s lord.
Lord of Eleusis, where all men come
to mother Demeter’s plain.
Bacchus, who dwell in Thebes,
by Ismenus’ running water,
where wild Bacchic women are at home,
on the soil of the dragon seed.

Seen in the glaring flame, high on the double mount,
with the nymphs of Parnassus at play on the hill,
seen by Kastalia’s flowing stream.
You come from the ivied heights,
from green Euboea’s shore.
In immortal words we cry
your name, lord, who watch the ways,
the many ways of Thebes.

This is your city, honored beyond the rest,
the town of your mother’s miracle-death.
Now, as we wrestle our grim disease,
come with healing step from Parnassus’ slope
or over the moaning sea.

Leader in the dance of the fire-pulsing stars
overseer of the voices of night,
child of Zeus, be manifest,
with due companionship of Maenad maids
whose cry is but your name.