The Diktaian Hymn to Zeus: a Paean to Peace

J.-A. Mac Gillivray

The Hymn to the Greatest Kouros - son of Kronos - is one of the most powerful of the ancient Greek anthems. It was sung by a choir at the annual Spring festival celebrated in honour of Diktaian Zeus at the Diktaion -his sanctuary at Palaikastro. The hymn recalls the god's birth and rescue by his mother Rhea with the Kouretes's help, the annual death and rebirth of nature and invokes the return of peaceful prosperity and harmonious order to both nature and society. These ideal conditions are signified by Diktaian Zeus, the most revered of the Cretan gods.
This hymn was inscribed on both sides of a limestone slab, four fragments of which were recovered from votive pits near Roussolakkos at Palaikastro in 1904. This discovery confirmed that Palaikastro was the site of the ancient Diktaion - the sanctuary famed in antiquity for the worship of Diktaian Zeus.
This year, we celebrate a century of scholarship devoted to this inscription and its remarkable hymn. We should recall that reading an ancient inscription is not clear-cut. Much of the text has to be inferred where there are gaps and even where well-preserved, its meaning is not obvious.
The hymn's metre suggests that it was composed in the fourth century B.C., but the lettering of the inscription itself indicates that it was probably part of the temple's final refurbishing during a resurgence of the cult in the third century A.D. But the hymn's invocation to peace and fertility echoes a much earlier age and sentiment.
Ancient Greek hymns follow the standard pattern of (1) the opening invocation followed by (2) the argument and ending with (3) the petition to the divinity.
The Palaikastro hymn starts with the refrain, which was sung between each of the six stanzas. This refrain is an appeal to the 'greatest Kouros'; the god is not named, perhaps through some religious prohibition, but 'son of Kronos' makes it clear that Zeus is the intended recipient of the plea. Cretan-born Zeus, also known as Welchanos, was a vegetation spirit who was reborn each year, like the Semitic Adonis and Egyptian Osiris.
As the 'master of all gone below ground', as much in nature is seen to do in the autumn, he is beseeched to return at the year's end, when winter is overthrown by spring, at the head of the line of divinities to his birthplace at Dikta.
The first stanza continues this invocation for the god to come and hear the chorus of initiates accompanied by pipes and harps or lyres as they girdle his altar.
In the second stanza the initiates celebrate their connection to the original Kouretes who defended Rhea's immortal child with their shields and masked his infant cries with their revelry. We can envisage the young initiates in the image of the beardless and closely cropped young god as they perform this hymn while striking the rhythm on their shields and dancing around his altar.
The third stanza has only the very last tantalizing phrase 'fair Dawn', which probably locates the hymn in time, as the months in the ancient civic calendar were measured by the heliacal rising at dawn of each month's star or constellation. The fourth stanza concludes the argument with the reference to a past age of prosperity before men knew war - Hesiod's Golden Age, when law and order guaranteed peace and prosperity.
The petition in the fifth and sixth stanzas entreats the young god to return from the underworld and to bring fertility to ensure the local cities' prosperity at harvest time, to protect their maritime trade as sailors put to sea again, to inspire the new citizens (initiates into the divine mysteries) and to ensure justice and order. We can assume that the initiates who sang this hymn must have vowed to abide by the laws at some point in their induction.
The Palaikastro Kouros, with his link to Minoan initiation rites, probably shows that the mythical dance of the Kouretes and some of the older ideas expressed in this hymn were based on a real performance, which took place at Palaikastro fifteen hundred years before the hymn was composed. These rites continued until the Diktaion was abandoned some time after the third century A.D.