The oldest of the Hymns were written in the seventh century BCE, somewhat later than Hesiod and the usually accepted date for the writing down of the Homeric epics. This still places the older Homeric hymns among the oldest monuments of Greek literature; but although most of them were composed in the seventh and sixth centuries, a few may be Hellenistic, and the Hymn to Ares might be a late pagan work, inserted when it was observed that a hymn to Ares was lacking. Walter Burkert has suggested that the Hymn to Apollo, attributed by an ancient source to Cynaethus of Chios (a member of the Homeridae), was composed in 522 BCE for performance at the unusual double festival held by Polycrates of Samos to honour Apollo of Delos and of Delphi.
The hymns, which must be the remains of a once more strongly represented genre, vary widely in length, some being as brief as three or four lines, while others are in excess of five hundred lines. The long ones comprise an invocation, praise, and narrative, sometimes quite extended. In the briefest ones, the narrative element is lacking. The longer ones show signs of having been assembled from pre-existing disparate materials.
Most surviving Byzantine manuscripts begin with the third Hymn. A chance discovery in Moscow, 1777, recovered the two hymns that open the collection, the fragmentary To Dionysus and To Demeter, in a single fifteenth century manuscript. Some at least of the shorter ones may be excerpts that have omitted the narrative central section, preserving only the useful invocation and introduction, which a rhapsode could employ in the manner of a prelude. The thirty-three hymns praise most of the major gods of Greek mythology; at least the shorter ones may have served as preludes to the recitation of epic verse at festivals by professional rhapsodes: often the singer concludes by saying that now he will pass to another song. A thirty-fourth, To Hosts is not a hymn, but a reminder that hospitality is a sacred duty enjoined by the gods, a pointed reminder when coming from a professional rhapsode.
Gods who have Homeric hymns dedicated to them include: