V. Contemporary Pagan and Heretical Hymns
Christianity expanded, as we have seen, in the environment
of eastern Mediterranean culture. Its original heritage was
that of Judaism, but within the first century it had entered
upon the conquest of the Gentile world. As that conquest
proceeded and the penetration of new ideas into pagan thought
continued, a corresponding reaction of paganism upon the
new faith took place. With the general aspects of this
phenomenon all are familiar. It is significant here only in
the field of lyrical expression. The period of pagan influence
in the sense of an imprint from Greek and Roman literature
is also the period of impact with pagan heretical ideas derived
either from current philosophies or the practices of mystery
Once more the chart and compass offered by the direct
extant sources are the best guides through the cross currents
of the literature in our possession. Representative pagan
poetry must be examined, at least of a few general types, in
order to establish what influence, if any, was exerted upon
contemporary Christian hymns.
Regarding the classical influence, per se, a large number of
Greek hymns were in existence when Christianity was founded,3838K.
Keyssner, Gottesvorstellung und Lebensauffassung in griechischen
Hymnus (Stuttgart, Kohlhammer, 1932). In his index Keyssner lists
72 known authors of all periods, 37 anonymous pieces (some fragments),
and 22 magical formulae or collections.
and Roman lyrics were appearing in that very
century. Paul was obviously acquainted with the Hymn of
Cleanthes, a Stoic writer of the third century, B.C., for he
quoted his words on the Areopagus. The original passage
to which Paul refers has been translated as follows:
Thee it is meet that mortals should invoke,
For we Thine offspring are and sole of all
Created things that live and move on earth
Receive from Thee the image of the One.3939E. H. Blakeney, Hymn of Cleanthes (London, S. P. C. K., 1921), 8.
It is evident that the Christian hymns embedded in the books
of the New Testament were not constructed after a classical
model of this type. The influence of Old Testament poetry
was too strong, the associations of paganism repellant and,
moreover, the Greek poetry, familiar to the average man of
that day, quite different. The older Greek hymns, such as
the Homeric Hymns, the Odes of Pindar, the choruses of
Greek tragedy, were produced in the Hellenic or pre-Hellenic
ages which had been followed by more than two centuries
of Hellenistic culture. Dr. Edward Delavan Perry, writing
of Hellenistic poetry, said, “Other forms of poetry, particularly
the lyric, both the choral and the ‘individual,’ died
out almost completely.”4040E. D. Perry, Preface to A. Körte,
Hellenistic Poetry, translated by J. Hammer and M.
Hadas (New York, Col. Un. Press, 1929), vii.
There remain, then, only the extant hymns of the mystery
cults. In spite of many references to the use of singing in
connection with these religions, very few specimens of their
hymns actually survive. The mystery religion was a sacramental
religion “which stressed the approach to Deity
through rite and liturgy after a severe probation and an oath
pledging to secrecy.”4141S. Angus, Religious Quests of the
Graeco-Roman World (New York, Scribners, 1929), 76.
The leading cults were those associated
with Orpheus, the Magna Mater (Cybele) and Attis,
Mithra, Serapis, Isis, Adonis, and especially the Eleusinian
Mysteries, which flourished for twelve centuries, ending with
their extinction by the Christians in 397.4242Supra, 77, 86, 87.
During the period under consideration in this study Isis
was honored in all parts of the Graeco-Roman world. An
authentic hymn to Isis appears in the writings of Apuleius
(b. 125), who describes a procession in honor of the goddess
and gives the words of the chorus, closing,
Thy divine countenance and most holy deity I shall guard and keep
forever in the secret place of my heart.
Variants of the Isis cult hymn or hymns have been preserved
in inscriptions; for example, a hymn of some fifty lines from
Cyme in Aeolia,
I am Isis the sovereign of the whole land.4343Metamorphoses,
xi, 25. Translation from S. Angus, Mystery Religions and Christianity
(New York, Scribners, 1925), 240-241. For the hymn from Cyme see P. Roussel, “Un nouvel
Hymne à Isis,” Revue des Études grecques, 42 (1929), 138.
Liturgical survivals of the cult of Mithra are almost unknown.
Franz Cumont, the great student of Mithraism, quotes one hymn
Hail bridegroom, hail thou new light!4444Cited by Firmicus Maternus,
De errore profanarum religionum, 20; Migne (PL), XII, 1025; F. Cumont,
Textes et Monuments Figurés relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra (Bruxelles,
Lamertin, 1899), vol. I, 313.
He is of the opinion, however, that the Manichaean song
mentioned by Augustine, 354-430, affords some idea of
Mithraic poetry. The song or hymn in question represents
a chief divinity surrounded by twelve minor divinities,
symbolizing the seasons, all clothed with floral
tributes.4545Contra Faustum, xv, 5; Migne (PL), xlii, 307.
Cumont also suggests that hero hymns were in existence, celebrating the
exploits of the gods.4646Cumont, op. cit. (see note 44), 302.
The so-called Liturgy of Mithra, a magic formula not considered by
Cumont, contains hymn fragments, one of which begins,
Lord, hail, potentate of the water,
hail, ruler of the earth,
hail, potentate of the spirit.4747A. Dieterich, Eine
Mithrasliturgie (Leipzig, Teubner, 1923), 14; Translation
from S. Angus, op. cit. (see note 43), 241.
Hippolytus, a presbyter of Rome who died in 236, in his
Refutation of all Heresies, quotes certain hymns in praise of
Whether thou art the race of Saturn or happy Jupiter,
I will hymn Attis, son of Rhea.4848Philosophumena, V, iv;
Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei
Jahrhunderte, Hippolytus, vol. iii, edited by Paul Wendland
(Leipzig, Hinrich, 1916), 99-100. Translation from Ante-Nicene
Fathers, V, 56-57.
Here, as in so many cases, our information concerning pagan
hymns is derived from an opponent, a Christian writer and
defender of orthodox religion, but this circumstance in no
way affects the validity of the text.
For the Orphic cult which had the longest period of influence,
we possess what may be termed a hymn book containing
eighty-seven hymns. It has been variously dated
from the third century, B.C., to the fourth or fifth century,
A.D. With a mental reservation as to the relevancy of the
citations, we find that some of these hymns in praise of the
gods are full of dignity, for instance,
Mother of Gods, great nurse of all, draw near,
Divinely honored, and regard my prayer.4949T. Taylor,
The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus (London, Dobell and
Reeves & Turner, 1896), 63.
So debatable is the subject of the Orphic hymns, both in
respect to date and usage, that they offer little or no assistance
to the student who is interested in a possible influence upon
Christian hymnology.5050J. Geffeken, Der Ausgang des
griechisch-römischen Heidentums (Heidelberg, Winter, 1929),
18; M. Hauck, Die hymnorum Orphicorum aetate (Dissertation,
Breslau, 1911); O. Kern, Die Herkunft des Orphischen Hymnenbuch
in Carl Robert zum 8. März 1910 Genethliakon (Berlin,
Sooner or later, one must turn to the land of Egypt, if one
desires a complete picture of early Christian culture. The
mystery of the Egyptian Isis, mentioned above, was one
element in the background of the times, illustrative of the
religious syncretism which had been fostered throughout the
Ptolemaic period. The identification of the Egyptian Thot with the
Greek Hermes is reflected in the Hermetic literature of which the
Poimandres is the oldest known writing.5151R. Reitzenstein,
Poimandres (Leipzig, Teubner, 1904), 59, 347f.
From this source a hymn of praise is derived:
By thy blessing my spirit is illumined,
and a thanksgiving hymn,
Holy is God, the Father of all the universe.5252Translations from S. Angus, Mystery Religions and Christianity, 241-242.
Summarizing the Greek influence, both Hellenic and
Graeco-oriental, upon Christian hymnology, it is difficult,
if not impossible, to trace any connection between the classic
Greek hymns or the hymns of mystery cults, and those of
the new faith. If more sources were available, a valid
conclusion might be reached. At present, a tentative conclusion
involves the recognition of the vigorous protest and
revolt against pagan ideas revealed in contemporary prose
writings, in turn evoked by the actual pressure which was
exerted upon Christianity by alien cults. The twentieth
century has produced an impressive literature centered about
the mystery religions and the problem of their influence upon
Christianity; but in the field of hymnology there have been
discovered only the faintest of traces. These are wholly
stylistic. Christian hymns which reveal the characteristics
of the repetition of direct address, or of relative clauses or
predicates, previously mentioned, illustrate poetic forms
which are, in the final analysis, oriental rather than
Greek.5353Phillips, Hymnody Past and Present, 13.
It is a satisfaction to the classicist, who is interested in
the history of this subject, that the classical meters, ignored
at this period, were destined to be revived at a later date.
They were used to some extent from the fourth century.
It was reserved for the court poets of the Carolingian circle
of the ninth century to restore the old lyric meters. The
Sapphic meter in its Horatian form not only was a favorite
among medieval Latin hymn writers, but also it has found
an occasional imitator in the course of the centuries even to
modern times.5454Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
(Paulus Diaconus, d. 799); Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du
verbrochen (Johann Heerman, 1630); Where is the Friend for
whom I’m ever yearning (Johann
While hymn sources derived from oriental cults are extremely
scanty, those originating in Gnosticism are much
more numerous and suggestive in their relation to Christian
hymnology. Gnosticism is not so much the name of a
particular philosophy or definite system of belief, as it is a
point of view, which sought to harmonize the speculative
achievement of Greek thought with the oriental myths and
with Christian teachings. The philosophical interpretation
of pagan mythology was extended to Hebrew and Christian
tradition. Thus, in accordance with the tenets of Neoplatonism,
the primeval being has produced the universal
mind and, in turn, mind has produced the soul which in contact
with evil phases of matter has lost its original purity.
Therefore, the soul must retrace its steps until it reaches the
final stage of reunion with the origin of all being. It is easy
to understand how a variety of meanings may be read into a
simple statement like the above. It is also easy to understand
that the possibilities of confusion arising in the first
three centuries of Christian history were matters of the
utmost concern to contemporary Christian writers and
dogmatists. The period abounded in heresies and misunderstandings,
to the discussion of which the ablest minds
of the Church were devoted. Quotations from these authors
furnish many of the extant hymns composed by Gnostics,
either within or without the Christian fold. The range of
literary excellence, of spiritual connotation and of intelligibility
of subject matter in the so-called Gnostic hymns is so
wide that it is difficult to evaluate them. To the modern
reader they vary from the mere rigmarole to the genuinely
Perhaps the best known and certainly one of the loftiest
expressions of Gnostic ideas is the Hymn of the Soul, which is
found in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas. Dating from the
first half of the third century, the Acts of Thomas recounts
the missionary preaching of the Apostle Thomas in India.
While in prison, he chants this hymn, beginning,
When I was an infant child in the palace of my father.5555Acts
of Thomas, IX, 108. Translation from M. R. James,
The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, Clarendon Press,
1924), 411. See also B. Pick, The Apocryphal Acts (Chicago,
Open Court Pub. Co., 1909), 312.
It has no connection with the narrative but relates in allegorical
fashion the return of the soul, which has been awakened
from its preoccupation with earthly matters, to the higher
state of heavenly existence. Here is a theme congenial to
Christian thought and orthodox in its theology when extricated
from the popular concepts of the times.5656According to Pick
op. cit. (see note 55), 312, it is a Gnostic development of
The actual authorship of the Hymn of the Soul, which is found in the
Syriac version of the Acts alone, is unknown, but it has been
attributed to some disciple of the Syrian Bardesanes, a
Christian Gnostic who lived in the second half of the second
century.5757O. Bardenhewer, Patrology, translated from the 2nd
edition by T. J. Shahan (Freiburg im B., Herder, 1908), 107.
There seems to be no doubt that Bardesanes was
himself influential as a hymn writer and that he was representative
of a group of poets who were beginning to employ
contemporary rhythms set to melodies familiar in daily
secular life.5858J. Kroll, op. cit. (see note 3), 270.
The Acts of Thomas contains a second hymn,
The damsel is the daughter of light,
a poem of oriental imagery, personifying the divine wisdom
as a bride.5959Acts of Thomas, I, 6. Translation from
M. R. James, op. cit. (see note 55), 367.
The apocryphal Acts of John, dating from the middle of
the second century, yields a third hymn, the Hymn of Jesus.
In the Gospel narrative of the last supper, Jesus and his
disciples, before going to the Mount of Olives, sing a hymn
together. It is not identified but is generally believed to be a
part of the Hallel or group of Passover Psalms, 113-118.
The writer of the Acts of John represents Jesus as using a new
hymn which opens,
Glory be to Thee, Father.
It contains a long series of antitheses, as follows:
I would be saved and I would save,
I would be loosed and I would loose,
I would be wounded and I would wound,
I would be borne and I would bear, etc.
The hymn concludes,
A way am I to thee, a wayfarer.6060Acts of John, 94, 95.
Translation from M. R. James, op. cit. (see note 55), 228, 253.
Variants of the Hymn of Jesus are extant, one of which has
been preserved by Augustine, the Hymn of the Priscillianists,
which came to him from a correspondent in Spain.6161Augustine,
Epistula ccxxxvii; Migne (PL), xxxiii, 1034. See also Leclercq,
op. cit. (see note 1), 2841.
Hippolytus, whose Refutation of all Heresies has been
mentioned in another connection, discusses the Gnostic sect
of the Naasenes. He quotes one of their hymns, beginning,
The world’s producing law was Primal Mind,
in which Jesus is represented as the guide of mankind to the
attainment of celestial knowledge.6262Philosophumena, v, 5;
Text, op. cit. (see note 48), 102. Translation from Ante-Nicene
Fathers, V, 58.
The system of Valentinus, a Gnostic leader, is also discussed
and a psalm of his authorship is quoted:
I behold all things suspended in air by spirit,
a didactic presentation of Gnostic thought.6363Philosophumena,
vi, 32; Text, op. cit. (see note 48), 167. Translation from
Ante-Nicene Fathers, V, 91. It is composed
in dactylic meter, affording another illustration of the adoption
of popular rhythms in the hymnology of the heretical
sects. A Gnostic hymn to the Highest God from a third
century Coptic source may be cited:
Thou art alone the eternal and
thou art alone the deep and
thou art alone the unknowable, etc.6464E. Norden, op. cit. (see note 36), 69.
Whatever impression may be created upon the modern
mind by the perusal of Gnostic poetry, its influence was
admitted by contemporary Christians and combatted by
every means in their power. The Gnostic leaders, unhampered
by Hebrew traditions of religious poetry, were
able to make use of popular forms and popular concepts.
They met the trend of the times more than halfway. Heretical
groups of all varieties of opinion were using hymns as a
means of expressing their beliefs and persuading possible
adherents. At the opening of the fourth century, Arius
appeared, the leader of the group whose theology was rejected
at the Council of Nicaea, 325, and whose hymns were met and
overcome by the verses of Ambrose. Such was the influence
of heretical upon orthodox hymnody.