The earliest known hymns were composed in Greece as songs of honor to the Greek gods, leading figures and heroes. Examples are the Homeric Hymns written in the 7th century B.C. The word “hymn” comes from the Greek word “hymnos,” meaning “song of praise.” Ancient hymns include the “Great Hymn to the Aten” by Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt, the Hindu “Vedas” collection of hymns and the Psalms of the Old Testament.
A collection of six literary hymns exists from the 3rd century, written by Callimachus the Alexandrian poet. Patristic writers first applied the word “hymnus” in Latin to describe songs of praise of the Christian faith. The structure of hymns was notably adopted by Saint Benedict of the Christian church, founder of the Benedictine Order of monks. Benedict fit Latin texts to song, including “Ave Maris Stella,” “Veni Sancte Spiritus” and “Pange Lingua,” which were later incorporated into the masterworks of composers such as Grieg, Monteverdi, Victoria and Palestrina.
At the time of the 16th-century Reformation, the reformers introduced new hymns that could be read in the vernacular, understood and sung by the people. The new hymns had scriptural basis and were given rhyme and verse structure, such as “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” This development further divided metrical psalms and hymns in the Christian faith.