Kyrie Eleison (Kyrie ele’eson), Lord have mercy: the Latin transliteration supposes a pronunciation as in Modern Greek) is a very old, even pre-Christian, ejaculation used constantly in all Christian liturgies. Arrian quotes it in the second century:”. Invoking God we say Kyrie eleeson (Diatribae Epicteti, II, 7). A more obvious precedent for Christian use was the occurrence of the same formula in the Old Testament (Ps. iv, 2; vi, 3; ix, 14; xxv, 11; cxxi, 3; Isa., xxxiii, 2; Tob., viii, 10, etc., in the Sept.). In these places it seems already to be a quasi-liturgical exclamation. So also in the New Testament the form occurs repeatedly (Matt., ix, 27; xx, 30; xv, 22; Mark, x, 47; Luke, xvi, 24; xvii, 13). The only difference is that all these cases have an accusative after the verb: Kyrie eleeson me, or ele’eson emas. The liturgical formula is shortened from this.
HISTORY, It is not mentioned by the Apostolic Fathers or the Apologists. The first certain example of its use in the liturgy is in that of the eighth book of the “Apostolic Constitutions“. Here it is the answer of the people to the various Synaptai (Litanies) chanted by the deacon (Brightman, “Eastern Liturgies”, pp. 4 and 5; cf. “Ap. Const.”, VIII, vi, 4). That is still its normal use in the Eastern rites. The deacon sings various clauses of a litany, to each of which the people answer, Kyrie Eleison. Of the Greek Fathers of the fourth century, Eusebius, Athanasius, Basil, Cyril of Jerusalem, and the two Gregories do not mention it. But it occurs often in St. John Chrysostom. Its introduction into the Roman Mass has been much discussed. It is certain that the liturgy at Rome was at one time said in Greek (to the end of the second century apparently). It is tempting to look upon our Kyrie Eleison as a surviving fragment from that time. Such, however, does not seem to be the case. Rather the form was borrowed from the East and introduced into the Latin Mass later. The older Latin Fathers, Tertullian, Cyprian, etc., do not mention it. Etheria (Silvia) heard it sung at Jerusalem in the fourth century. It is evidently a strange form to her, and she translates it: “As the deacon says the names of various people (the Intercession) a number of boys stand and answer always, Kyrie Eleison, as we should say, Miserere Domine” (ed. Herwus, Heidelberg, 1908, XXIV, 5, p. 29). The first evidence of its use in the West is the third canon of the Second Council of Vaison (Vasio in the province of Arles), in 529. From this canon it appears that the form was recently introduced at Rome and in Italy (Milan?): “Since both in the Apostolic See as also in all the provinces of the East and in Italy a sweet and most pious custom has been introduced that Kyrie Eleison be said with great insistence and compunction, it seems good to us too that this holy custom be introduced at Matins and Mass and Vespers” (cf. Hefele-Leclereq, “Histoires des Conciles”, Paris, 1908, pp. 1113-1114; Duchesne, “Origins”, p. 183). The council says nothing of Africa or Spain, though it mentions Africa in other canons about liturgical practices (Can. v). It appears to mean that Kyrie Eleison should be sung by the people cum grandi affectu. E. Bishop (in the “Downside Review”, 1889) notes that this council represents a Romanizing movement in Gaul.
The next famous witness to its use in the West is St. Gregory I (590-604). He writes to John of Syracuse to defend the Roman Church from imitating Constantinople by the use of this form, and is at pains to point out the difference between its use at Rome and in the East: “We neither said nor say Kyrie Eleison as it is said by the Greeks. Among the Greeks all say it together, with us it is said by the clerks and answered by the people, and we say Christe Eleison as many times, which is not the case among the Greeks. Moreover in daily Masses some things usually said are left out by us; we say only Kyrie Eleison and Christe Eleison, that we may dwell longer on these words of prayer” (Ep. ix in P.L., LXXVII, 956). The last words appear to mean that sometimes other prayers are left out that there may be more time for singing the Kyrie Eleison. We see also from this passage that in St. Gregory’s time the special Roman use of the alternative form Christe Eleison (unknown in the Gallican and Eastern rites) existed. It seems inevitable to connect the Kyrie Eleison in the Roman Mass with an original litany. Its place corresponds exactly to where it occurs as part of a litany in the Syrian-Byzantine Liturgy; it is still always sung at the beginning of litanies in the Roman Rite too, and St. Gregory refers to “something’s usually said” in connection with it. What can these things be but clauses of a litany, sung, as in the East, by a deacon? Moreover there are still certain cases in the Roman Rite, obviously of an archaic nature, where a litany occurs at the place of the Kyrie. Thus on Easter Eve the Mass begins with a litany of which the last clause (Kyrie Eleison, repeated three times; Christe Eleison, repeated three times; Kyrie Eleison, repeated three times) is sung as the celebrant says the first prayers of the Mass, and correspond in every way to our usual Kyrie. So also at ordinations the Litany is sung towards the beginning of the Mass. In this connection it may be noted that down to the late Middle Ages the Kyrie of the Mass was left out when it had just been sung in a Litany before Mass, as on Rogation days (e.g., Ordo Rom., XI, lxiii). We may suppose, then, that at one time the Roman Mass began (after the Introit) with a litany of general petitions very much of the nature of the third part of our Litany of the Saints. This would correspond exactly to our great Synapte in the Syrian Rite. Only, from what has been said, we conclude that the answer of the people was in Latin—the “Miserere Domine” of Etheria, or “Te rogamus, audi nos”, or some such form. About the fifth century the Greek Kyrie Eleison was adopted by the West and at Rome with the alternative form Christe Eleison. This was then sung, not as in the East only by the people, but alternately by cantors and people. It displaced the older Latin exclamations at this place and eventually remained alone as the only remnant of the old litany.
The first Roman Ordo (sixth-seventh cent.) describes a not yet fixed number of Kyries sung at what is still their place in the Mass: “The school [schola, choir] having finished the Antiphon [the Introit] begins Kyrie Eleison. But the leader of the school watches the Pontiff that he should give him a sign if he wants to change the number of the litany” (“Ordo Rom. primus”, ed. Atchley, London, 1905, p. 130). In the “Ordo of Saint Amand”, written in the eighth century and published by Duchesne in his “Origines du culte” (p. 442), we have already our number of invocations: “When the school has finished the Antiphon the Pontiff makes a sign that Kyrie Eleison should be said. And the school says it [dicit always covers singing in liturgical Latin; cf. the rubrics of the present Missal: “dicit cantando vel legendo” before the Pater Noster], and the Regionarii who stand below the ambo repeat it. When they have repeated it the third time the Pontiff signs again that Christ [sic] Eleison be said. This having been said the third time he signs again that Kirie Eleison be said. And when they have completed it nine times he signs that they should stop.” So we have, at least from the eighth century, our present practice of singing immediately after the Introit three times Kyrie Eleison, three times Christe Eleison, three times Kyrie Eleison, making nine invocations altogether. Obviously the first group is addressed to God the Father, the second to God the Son, the third to God the Holy Ghost. The medieval commentators are fond of connecting the nine-fold invocation with the nine choirs of angels (Durandus, “Rationale“, IV, xii). From a very early time the solemnity of the Kyrie was marked by a long and ornate chant. In the Eastern rites, too, it is always sung to long neums. It is still the most elaborate of all our plainsong melodies. In the Middle Ages the Kyrie was constantly farced with other words to fill up the long neums. The names of the various Kyries in the Vatican Gradual (for instance, Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor Deus of the tenth century, Kyrie magnce Deus potentue of the thirteenth century, etc.) are still traces of this. As an example of these innumerable and often very long farcings, this comparatively short one from the Sarum Missal may serve:
Kyrie, rex genitor ingenite, vera essentia, eleyson.
Kyrie, luminis fons rerumclue conditor, eleyson. Kyrie, qui nos tuae imaginis signasti specie, eleyson.
Christe, Dei forma humana particeps, eleyson. Christe, lux oriens per quem sunt omnia, eleyson.
Christe, qui perfecta es sapientia, eleyson. Kyrie, spiritus vivifice, vitae vis, eleyson. Kyrie, utriusque vapor in quo cuncta, eleyson. Kyrie, expurgator scelerum et largitor gratiae;quwsumus propter nostras offensas noli nos relinquere, O consolator dolentis animse, eleyson (ed. Burntisland, 929).
[Lord, King and Father unbegotten, True Essence of the Godhead, have mercy on us. Lord, Fount of light and Creator of all things, have mercy on us.
Lord, Thou who hast signed us with the seal of Thine image, have mercy on us.
Christ, True God and True Man, have mercy on us.
Christ, Rising Sun, through whom are all things, have mercy on us.
Christ, Perfection of Wisdom, have mercy on us. Lord, vivifying Spirit and power of life, have mercy on us.
Lord, Breath of the Father and the Son, in Whom are all things, have mercy on us.
Lord, Purger of sin and Almoner of grace, we beseech Thee abandon us not because of our Sins, O Consoler of the sorrowing soul, have mercy on us.]
Notice the greater length of the last farcing to fit the neums of the last Kyrie, which are always longer. Sometimes the essential words are mixed up with the farcing in a very curious mixture of Latin and Greek: “Conditor Kyrie omnium ymas creaturarum eleyson” (Ib., 932*). The reformed Missal of Pius V happily abolished these and all other farcings of the liturgical text.
IN THE ROMAN RITE.—In the Mass, the three groups of invocations are sung by the choir immediately after the Introit. They form the beginning of the choir’s part of the Ordinary. A number of plainsong Masses are provided in the Gradual, each characterized and named after the Kyrie that begins it. Although each Mass is appointed for a certain occasions (e.g., for solemn feasts, doubles, Masses of the B. V. M., etc.) there is no law against using them without regard to this arrangement. Moreover, except on ferias, which keep their very simple chants, the various parts (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) of different Masses may be combined (see rubric after the fourth Creed in the Vatican “Gradual“). The new Vatican edition also provides a series of other chants, including eleven Kyries, ad libitum. The Kyrie Eleison (as all the Ordinary and proper of the choir) may also be sung to figured music that does not offend against the rules of Pius X’s “Motu proprio” on church music (November 22, 1903). Meanwhile the celebrant, having incensed the altar and read the Introit at the Epistle side, says the Kyrie there with joined hands alternately with the deacon, sub-deacon, and surrounding servers. At low Mass the celebrant after the Introit comes to the middle of the altar and there says the Kyrie alternately with the server (“Ritus celebr.” in the Missal, iv, 2, 7). The Kyrie is said in this way at every Mass with the exception of Holy Saturday and also of the Mass on Whitsun Eve at which the prophecies and litany are chanted. On these occasions the cantors finish the litany by singing the nine invocations of the Kyrie. After the prayers at the foot of the altar the celebrant goes up, incenses the altar, and then at once intones the Gloria. But he should say the Kyrie in a low voice himself first. Besides in the Mass, the Kyrie occurs repeatedly in other offices of the Roman Rite, always in the form Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison (each invocation once only). It begins the preces feriales at Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers; it begins the preces at Prime and Compline. It is sung after the Responsorium at funerals, said at marriages and on many other occasions for blessings and consecrations. In these cases it generally precedes the Pater Noster. It also begins and ends the Litany of the Saints. As an imitation of this it is always placed at the beginning of the various other private litanies which are imitations of the official one.
IN OTHER RITES—In the first place, the invocation Christe Eleison is purely Roman. With one exception, obviously a Roman interpolation in the Mozarabic Rite, it does not occur in any other use. Local medieval uses had it, of course; but they are only slight local modifications of the Roman Rite, not really different rites at all. In the Gallican Mass, as described by Germanus of Paris, three boys sing Kyrie Eleison three times after the Trisagion which follows the Antiphon at the entrance, then follows the Benedictus. These chants represent the beginning of the Mass (Duchesne, “Origins du Culte”, pp. 182, 183). After the Gospel and Homily comes a litany sung by the deacon like the Syrian and Byzantine synaptai. The people answer in Latin: Precamur to Domine, miserere; but at the end come three Kyrie Eleisons. The Milanese rite shows its Gallican origin by its use of the Kyrie. Here, too, the form is always Kyrie Eleison three times (never Christe Eleison). It occurs after the Gloria which has replaced the older Trisagion, after the Gospel, where the Gallican litany was, and after the Post-communion always said by the celebrant alone. It also occurs throughout the Milanese offices, more or less as at Rome, but always in the form of Kyrie Eleison three times. The Mozarabic Liturgy does not know the form at all, except in one isolated case. In the Mass for the Dead, after the singing of the chant called Sacrificium (corresponding to the Roman Offertory) the celebrant says Kyrie Eleison, and the choir answers Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison (“Missale mixtum” in P.L., LXXXV 1014, 1018, 1021, 1024, etc.—the various Masses for the Dead). This is obviously a Roman interpolation.
All the Eastern rites use the form Kyrie Eleison constantly. It is the usual answer of the people or choir to each clause of the various litanies sung by the deacon throughout the service (varied, however, by paraschou Kyrie and one or two other similar ejaculations). It also occurs many other times, for instance in the Antiochene Rite it is sung twelve times, at Alexandria three times just before the Communion. In the Byzantine Rite it comes over and over again, nearly always in a triple form, among the Troparia and other prayers said by various people throughout the Office as well as in the Liturgy. A conspicuous place in this rite is at the dismissal (Brightman, 397). In general it may be said to occur most frequently in the Syrian-Byzantine family of Liturgies. In the Syriac liturgies it is said in Greek, spelled in Syriac letters Kurillison, so also in the Coptic liturgies (in Greek letters of course—nearly all the Coptic alphabet is Greek); in the Abyssinian Rite it is spelled out: Kiralayeson. The Nestorians translate it into Syriac and the Armenians into Armenian. All the versions of the Byzantine Rite used by the various Orthodox and Uniate Churches (Old Slavonic, Arabic, Rumanian, etc.) also translate Kyrie ele’eson.