We are unveiling the first draft of our new project this weekend at the Getty Villa. This new music and performance piece is adapted from the Homeric Hymns. Read on for a primer on the source material, and a discussion of why the hymns matter to us in the 21st century from creator/composer Mat Sweeney:
The ancient Homeric Hymns are a collection of poems, among the oldest surviving greek literature. They are a transitive testament of the leap from an oral to a written storytelling tradition. Each hymn is addressed to a specific deity- some chronicle an important narrative episode in the life of that god/dess while others simply extol their defining virtues. The hymns are ‘Homer-ic’ in form and style though not necessarily authored by a single ‘Homer’ (if such a person ever existed). More likely they were composed across disparate generations and later compiled by archivists. They were primarily used as anthemic preludes to public events (religious or civic festivities, competitions, performances, etc). Hymn composition and recitation helped define one’s civic and collective identity. The hymns were traded and transformed by travellers, becoming cultural tumbleweeds offered as gifts or blessings to weary guests or foreign hosts. They delineated geography and blurred the timeline between a mythic past and a remembered history. These beautiful poems offer a dreamlike trail of clues to the ancient Greek’s relationship to time, space, and one another. The hymns have been passed down in fragments, in an infinite web of translations, offering a time bending telescope to a world where poetry, belief, and daily practice are impossibly intertwined.
These ancient hymns were malleable and meant to be useful. Whether used to appeal, rally, seduce or indoctrinate, the hymns were evolving documents, tailored to meet a specific function for their audience. To that end we have translated and sequenced a collage of necessary hymns for Los Angeles in the 2020’s. This new hymnal borrows from the surviving fragments and the corresponding pantheon of Greek deities to address our most urgent concerns. Specifically these new hymns celebrate collective action and the power of group resistance, they call for the protection of mother earth and the powerful female deities who govern her cycles, they praise curiosity and scientific inquiry, they ward against tribalism and isolationism, and they exalt diversity and hospitality.
In the ancient Homeric Hymns we find a root of narrative folk singing that has transformed and evolved across many cultures. Rather than guess at a recreation of the timbre of the hymns in their original form, our modern hymnal seeks to contextualize them within a broader web of musical and narrative traditions. In this moment where certain historiographical terrorists seek to impose a straight and exclusive hereditary line from the ancient Greeks to an imagined ‘white’ cultural identity, we seek to emphasize the inherent cultural exchange embedded in these texts. Concepts, characters, and wording in the original hymns can be traced to narrative poetry across earlier civilizations in Africa and Asia, and they continued to evolve in later adaptations across farther seas in subsequent centuries. In this way the hymns remind us of the impossibility of isolated authorship or cultural superiority. These songs are meant for singing and for perpetual renewal by whatever ears they fall upon. May these ancient seeds continue to blossom.