The Homeric hymns were songs that praised and honoured the gods while at the same time serving as preludes to the recitation of more extensive epic poems. Many manuscripts mention the great poet Homer as their creator, but already from antiquity, there were serious doubts about the paternity of the works. The most probable version is that the hymns are compositions of various poets active in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Their creators would be wandering poets looking for popular or religious festivals to present their work to large crowds.
About thirty-three hymns survive, but without a doubt, there would have been many more that are now lost. These creations are not just intended to entertain the listeners but perform a specific religious function, ensuring the attention and favourable attitude of the deity towards the poet and the community. Most Homeric hymns share common elements: they inspire and describe the acquisition of specific attributes, powers, and places of worship by the deity, beginning and ending with the invocation of the divine, which includes the rendering of particular worship adjectives and the description of the individual characteristics and rights of the deity who is the subject of the poem. There is a reference to contemporary events and a promise for another hymn in the epilogue.
The world of the hymns is transient. Zeus has prevailed and is the ultimate master of the universe but the world we know as mortals has not yet crystallised. The poet and the public come in contact with events that foreshadow the realisation of desired situations and essentially create the natural, social and religious context in which humanity will move. Therefore, hymns can include the narration of the deity's birth, a challenge to its dominion, the final victory with the subsequent awarding of honours, and the glorious ascent to Mount Olympus. The longer hymns present a comprehensive mythological narrative that endows the origin of institutions and religious ceremonies with divine sanctity.
A critical difference between the Homeric Hymns and the epic of Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) concerns the role of mortals. The epics focus on the action and fate of heroes. On the contrary, the Hymns deal almost exclusively with the adventures of the immortal gods and the mortals, who appear in them, are merely spectators in a supernatural drama aimed at the glory of the deity. Surprisingly, however, the gods appear addicted to the worship of mortals and express their interest in the fate of humans.
In moments of euphoria, immortals can grant divine beauty, power, and grace to select mortals, but these gifts are often ambiguous and seem more like trouble than happiness. Kallidike, daughter of the Eleusinian king Celeus, reminds us that “humans [must] endure the gifts the gods give because they [the gods] are much more powerful”. Unprotected in the face of death and old age, mortals are instruments of cruel fate, while the gods enjoy a blissful existence. As an introduction to epic poems that would follow, the Hymns remind mortal listeners that human destiny is utterly insignificant in the eyes of the gods and the heroic deeds they will hear next should not make them forget this fundamental and eternal truth.