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July 16, 2013

Phos Ilaron (Gladsome Light): the Hymn of Athenogenes the Martyr

By John Sanidopoulos

According to tradition, the Holy Martyr Athenogenes was an aged priest, who in the year 196 A.D. was burned alive for his faith in Christ in Pontus of Asia Minor. It is said that as he approached the fire to be burned, he sang the joyful evening hymn Phos Ilaron (Φως Ιλαρόν; Gladsome Light) as his disciples stood by. Many attribute to him authorship of this hymn and it is still said today during the Evening Vespers service.

This tradition is confirmed by Basil the Great in Chapter 29 of his treatise "On the Holy Spirit", where he cites the ancient texts and traditions of the Church that refered to the divinity of the Holy Spirit, among which is the "Hymn of Athenogenes" Phos Ilaron. He wrote:

"I will now adduce another piece of evidence which might perhaps seem insignificant, but because of its antiquity must in nowise be omitted by a defendant who is indicted on a charge of innovation. It seemed fitting to our fathers not to receive the gift of the light at eventide in silence, but, on its appearing, immediately to give thanks. Who was the author of these words of thanksgiving at the lighting of the lamps, we are not able to say. The people, however, utter the ancient form, and no one has ever reckoned guilty of impiety those who say 'We praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God'. And if any one knows the Hymn of Athenogenes, which, as he was hurrying on to his perfecting by fire, he left as a kind of farewell gift to his friends, he knows the mind of the martyrs as to the Spirit."

St. Athenogenes the Martyr is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on July 16th together with another martyr named Athenogenes, who is said to have been martyred in 290 with his ten disciples by beheading. There is no valid reason to confuse the two besides the similarity of name, as many do.

Though Mark of Ephesus and Symeon of Thessaloniki confirm St. Athenogenes to be the author of Phos Ilaron, some attribute its authorship to Sophronios of Jerusalem. Nikodemos the Hagiorite in his Synaxarion argues that this attribution is without foundation, since Sophronios lived in the seventh century, while Basil confirms the hymn was written before his time in the fourth century. He further writes that the hymn was found written on an ancient Alexandrian Codex of the Septuagint from before the time of Sophronios. Nikodemos also notes that Sophronios likely perfected the hymn to its present form, which is why it is often attributed to him.

Thus St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite wrote the following Iambic Verses of Praise for St. Athenogenes: 

"Athenogenes ran towards the fire saying, 
O Gladsome Light Christ the Holy Glory."

Below is the hymn in Greek and English:


Φώς ιλαρόν αγίας δόξης αθανάτου Πατρός, ουρανίου, αγίου, μάκαρος, Ιησού Χριστέ, ελθόντες επί την ηλίου δύσιν, ιδόντες φώς εσπερινόν, υμνούμεν Πατέρα, Υιόν και Άγιον Πνεύμα, Θεόν. Άξιόν σε εν πάσι καιροίς, υμνείσθαι φωναίς αισίαις, Υιέ Θεού, ζωήν ο διδούς· Διό ο κόσμος σε δοξάζει.


O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening. We praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God. For it is right at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world glorifies Thee.