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Between Athens and Delphi: The Pragmatics of the Delphic Hymns

Claas Lattmann

In 128/7 BCE, an Athenian sacred embassy performed two hymns in Delphi during a so-called Pythais. Subsequently, the text including the musical notation was inscribed on the Athenian treasury. In the late 19th century, stone fragments were found containing the bulk of the poems, marking the discovery of one of the very first authentic and most important testimonia for ancient Greek music (see Bélis 1992; Pöhlmann / West 2001).

Although the content of the poems is clear at large, many questions pertaining to them have not been answered satisfactorily yet. One of the most pressing problems is which lyric genre the poems belonged to and, in consequence, what their actual mode of performance was: for the inscription gives two genres for each of the two poems, i.e. “paian and hyporchema” for the first and “paian and prosodion” for the second. In the common view this surprising fact is explained by the assumption that each hymn is subdivided into two parts with each part belonging to a different genre – so that, by implication, there actually are four and not two poems.

This paper will propose a new interpretation of the hymns, starting from the observation that although both poems are strikingly similar as to their content – they are prayers to Apollo praising the same or comparable feats –, they are significantly different with regard to at least one remarkable aspect: whereas the “paian and hyporchema” contains the description of an offering at an altar, the “paian and prosodion” contains the description of Apollo’s voyage from Delos.

Given 1) the fact that in the Hellenistic literary classificatory system (cf. e.g. Harvey 1955) “hyporchema” was the name used for stationary songs and “prosodion” the name used for processional songs; 2) the fact that in the cultic realities of the Pythais at Delphi, there indeed was an offering followed by a procession (see e.g. Boethius 1918); and 3) the fact that both hymns deal with Apollo and his feats; the difference between the hymns’ headings turns out to be the key to an adequate understanding of the poems and their pragmatic interrelation: whereas both songs are a “paian” due to their being addressed to Apollo (cf. in general Käppel 1992; Rutherford 2001), the “paian and hyporchema”, first, was a song performed during an offering at an altar; and the “paian and prosodion”, second, was a song performed during a subsequent procession. In other words: the songs were as a whole “paian and hyporchema” and “paian and prosodion”, respectively, at the very same time. Or, put differently: the compound headings of the two poems do not point to their having different parts, but rather aim at simultaneously classifying them with regard to both content (paian) and mode of performance (hyporchema and prosodion, respectively) in the framework of contemporary Hellenistic literary theory.

In consequence, it can be seen that the pragmatic function of both hymns in combination was to closely mirror their respective performance situation (offering and procession) and exactly thus to give religious meaning to the cultic actions that were being performed during their singing.

All in all, the interpretation put forward in this paper 1) helps to understand the Delphic Hymns more adequately with regard to structure, content, and meaning; 2) allows first-hand insights into the classification of poetry in Hellenistic times; and 3) sheds light on the public performance of poems in these times.

Session/Panel Title

The Performance of Greek Poetry

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