A paean expresses thanks, elation, or triumph through the form of a song or lyrical poem.
Paeans originated in ancient Greece as a way of thanking the gods for something they did for you. This might be something that benefited one’s personal life, such as an advantageous business vendor or a marriage. Or, it might be the onset of a storm, the death of an enemy, or anything that one might think of. These songs were chant-like in ancient Greece, resembling something more like a prayer than an actual song.
Today, paeans are less common, but they are still written. Many don’t use the word “paean” due to its antiquated origins and meaning, but the poems still exist.
Definition and Explanation of Paean
The first paeans were focused on the God Apollo. They were songs thanking him for his healing powers and expressing gratitude for what he could do for them. These songs expanded as the years went by to include other gods like Dionysus, the god of wine, and Helios, the god of the sun. The latter was likely in connection to good harvests and perhaps even more generally good weather.
While paeans originated in ancient Greece as songs, chants, or praise for the gods, people eventually started writing them for one another, rather than just for the gods. This practice still occurs today, seen in some examples below.
Examples of Paeans in Modern Literature
‘Lenore’ is one of the most famous modern paeans. In fact, before changing the title, the poem was titled ‘A Paean.’ It celebrates the life of someone’s departed wife. The husband looks on the wife’s body and sings a “paean,” or a celebratory song, rather than a requiem or one of mourning. In the text, the speaker spends time worrying over the presence of mourners, feeling as though their presence dishonors her. At the same time, the mourners want him to sing something sadder; he refuses and addresses his wife. Here are a few lines from the poem:
How shall the burial rite be read?
The solemn song be sung?
The requiem for the loveliest dead,
That ever died so young?
‘The Bells,’ one of Poe’s most musical poems, is also sometimes considered a paean. In the lines of ‘The Bells,’ the speaker spends the whole poem describing the sounds of the bells. As the poem progresses, his awe and horror increases. Here are a few lines:
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells—
In this poem, the speaker spends the text speaking about the creation of the universe through a Christian perspective. He spends many of the lines celebrate the power of God and praising what he’s done in regard to creation. At the same time, readers should take note of the warnings Horton includes. His speaker suggests that the fate of the planet may not be a good one if humanity continues on the path they’re on. Here’s the first stanza:
Creation fires my tongue!
Nature thy anthems raise;
And spread the universal song
Of thy Creator’s praise!
Paeans in Ancient Greece
Of the ancient Greek poets, Bacchylides and Pindar are the most famous for their paeans. Their works were sung at the festivals of Apollo and then later at funerals. These poems were quite important due to the stress the ancient Greeks put on their relationship to the Gods. Their whole worlds hinged on that relationship functioning smoothly and their efforts to get in the god’s good favor. Being loved by a god was the best way to ensure that one had a profitable and fulfilling life.
One example of a paean comes from an inscription found at Delphi that might’ve been one of the first addressed to Dionysus. The following lines are an excerpt of the paean, likely composed by Philodamus and his brothers:
And in your hand brandishing your night-lighting flame, with god-possessed frenzy you went to the vales of Eleusis rich in flowers – O io Bacchus, O hail Paean – where the whole people of Hellas’ land, alongside your own native witnesses of the holy mysteries, calls upon you as Iacchus […]
As scholars have noted, in the end, there is an inscription stating that it was written in honor of “Philodamus of Scarpheia, the son of Aenesidamus.” It’s here that it’s also noted that the work was written by Philodamus.
Here is another excerpt from a paean written to Apollo:
Permanent occupant of the holy Pythian oracle, founded by gods on the mountain flanking Delphi Apollo – O hail Paean – Apollo, pride and joy of Leto, Coeus’ daughter, and by the will of Zeus, supreme among the gods – O Paean.
These lines are dated to 334/3 B.C. and were translated by W.D.Furley & J.M.Bremer in “Greek Hymns: The texts in translation.”
One final example is a Paean to Asclepius from a temple in Epidaurus. It’s unclear who Isyllus, mentioned in the song, is or who composed the lines.
Isyllus of Epidaurus, the son of Socrates, dedicated this to Apollo Maleatas and to Asclepius.
If the city properly educates men for aristocracy, it becomes itself mightier, for it is raised up by manly virtue. But if one who is properly educated sets his course back, falling again into baseness, then the city will be safer in chastising him.
This translation was completed by E. & L.Edelstein in “Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies.”
Why Do Writers Write Paeans?
Writers create paeans in order to draw attention to something they’re thankful for or want to celebrate in some way. This “thing” might be a change in their fortunes, an opportunity that presented itself, the life of someone they loved, or the life of someone they find generally impressive. These songs are sometimes more upbeat than others, but they always have a strong focus on that one “thing” that’s worth writing about.
Anthem, laud, acclamation, hymn, commendation lyric, homage lyric.
Related Literary Terms
- Ode: a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration of dedication. They are generally directed with specific intent.
- Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
- Poem Subject: the main idea, goal, or thing about which the poem is concerned.
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.