Psalms and Hymns are clearly two different genres. In the 1st century, Paul made a distinction between Psalms and hymns in Ephesians 5:19. Obviously, this particular example of differentiation could not arise until the Psalms had been created. Nevertheless, the Psalms did not appear in a vacuum. What are these differences and when and where did different genres originate?
First, though, we should look at the five major differences between Psalms and Hymns.
Psalms trace back to the Hebrew Bible and, although psalms were added between the 10th and 4th centuries BCE depending upon events, the Psalms are a closed book. One cannot write a new Psalm to add to the existing collection. Hymns are considered extrabiblical compositions and many new ones have been written across the centuries.
Psalms originally were accompanied music, as can be seen in Psalm 98:5, “Sing Praises unto the Lord with the harp.” The name Psalm comes from Greek “psalmos” and literally means “sung to [a harp's] twanging strings.” After all, there is a reason King David was known—and depicted in Medieval art—as a master harpist. Hymns may or may not have been accompanied by an instrument. Many were not; they were voice only. The name Hymn comes from Greek”hymnos” and means “song of praise.”
Psalms are a collection and include an embedded collection colophon among them. A colophon normally is a statement placed at the end of a tablet, scroll or manuscript to indicate something about the author, time, place or scribe. An embedded *collection* colophon is a colophon that, attached to the previous song, over time and copying has been placed among the songs. Until the nineteenth century CE, Hymns were not preserved as collections and, when collections finally did appear, they have the colophon at the end, if they have any colophon at all.
Psalms are prayers, songs of request and petition. Although the name “Tehillim” (praise) in Hebrew was attached to the collection, even the Hallelujah psalms (146-150) are songs of supplication. In fact, the embedded collection colophon that appears after Psalm 72 states: Amen, Amen/Completed are the *prayers* of David, son of Jesse. Hymns, as the name literally states, are strictly songs of praise.
While metrical and rhythmical, the original Hebrew Psalms are written in free verse. Free verse may include rhyme, slant rhyme, assonance, alliteration—in fact, practically every known poetic device and technique. Word play on sound and sense are regular features. Hymns, on the other hand, had very strict rules for composition, if not the rules in effect today. Alfred Tennyson considered Hymns the most difficult of all songs to write.
While acknowledging that early hymns derived from the Hebrew liturgy, the Catholic Encyclopedia states that “Hymnody is still recent in its origin.” What is meant is that rules for hymns (hymnody), as they are thought of today, are modern – 19th-century. Similar statements are found in every book and article on the history of Hymns. We find agreement that “true” hymns only began to appear in the late fourth-century CE. We should be more precise in stating our terms: hymns written specifically for singing by Christian congregations make an appearance in the last half of the fourth century. Hymnody, to sing praise to a deity in public worship, dates back to Antiquity.
The oldest known song of praise, that is, hymn, is on a tablet from Kesh (or Kish) and dates to ca.2600 BCE. However, something, or rather, someone, new appeared on the religious song scene in the 24th century BCE: Enheduanna* – Princess, Priestess and Poetess. The daughter of Sargon I of the empire of Sumer and Akkad, she was the High priestess of the Moon God, Nanna.
Enheduanna was based at Sumerian Ur. A collection of tablets, known as “The Temple Hymns,” was found at the ‘Gippar’, or temple complex, at Ur. There are forty-two tablets. As in manuscripts written 2,500 years later, Akkadian tablets typically had a colophon at the end. Situated between the fortieth and forty-second tablets is a tablet that contains an embedded collection colophon bearing Enheduanna’s name, the statement that this collection of songs is the first of its kind and, as Nisaba was the god of scribes, it was written at Nisaba’s temple.
dnisaba z?-mi Praise Nisaba
lu-dub-KA-kes-da The arranger of the tablet [is]
lugal-mu-ni u-tu My Lord, what has been [here] created
na-me lu nam-mu-un-utu no one has [before] created.
?-dnisaba er?ski-a At the house of Nisaba in Eres.
While the collection included some existing local songs in Sumerian, Enheduanna either wrote or revised the forty-two hymns. There is one song for each of the deities of thirty-six of her father’s conquered Sumerian cities
As high priestess, Enheduanna, was a power in the land; she was also an exceptionally gifted songwriter. Her songs are tightly structured, multi-layered, and multi-vocal. She had such a distinctive style that, just as the Psalms written by David can be distinguished from among the Hebrew Psalms, her songs can be distinguished from among the pre-existing songs in the collection.
Her songs are songs of praise; thus her collection of songs are rightfully called “hymns.” These hymns are syllabic song, that is, songs sung one note to each syllable. Intended for public worship, the songs are rhythmical and tightly structured. Parallelism, the repetition of a phrase in the first colon (line with a caesura) with another form in the second colon, a feature of Biblical and Canaanite song, is a feature of her hymns.
On a surface level, her hymns were composed for joyous congregational singing; however, Enheduanna’s songs also served political and social ends as well as religious ones. Her father assigned her the job of binding his subjects together through religion.
Enheduanna formalized religious song. She categorized songs by genre. There were unaccompanied songs, songs that were accompanied by clappers; there were songs that were accompanied by horns, and, among other genres she created, there were songs accompanied by harp (psaltery).
Enheduanna created the model—right down to the embedded collection colophon that we find after Psalm 72 in the Biblical Psalter. Biblical songs were composed in the same tradition. In Hebrew, they are rhythmical, tightly structured, multi-vocal and contain equally tight links between sound and sense across a song. They are syllabic, bi-colonic (2 colon) with a central caesura and metrical. There also is no question that the Psalms were sung accompanied—at least until 70 A.D. when the temple was destroyed.
Pre-Monarchial songs within the Hebrew text of the Bible may be distinguished from late pre-exilic and post-exilic songs, as the older the song, the closer it follows Enheduanna’s surface model and retains the quality of a folk song. Enheduanna’s sophisticated multi-layered model reappears in the Monarchial Psalms attributed to David, King of Israel and Psalmist. Enheduanna’s popular public surface model, including parallelism, remained in force as the model down the centuries carried on through the Biblical model in Hebrew.
Enheduana’s hymns were popular; she was still known by name sixteen-hundred years later. With Enheduanna, we find the origins of the division into genres found in Western hymnody and psalmody.
*Enheduanna: [en]=high priestess; [he-du]=ornament; [an-na]= of the sky.“Ornament of the Sky” is a poetic way to refer to the moon.