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What is the Meaning of Prayer in the Hellenic Polytheistic Tradition?


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Praying to Gods is a revered act in Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion; it is sacred and intimate. Prayer is direct communication with Gods, whether it be supplication, thanksgiving, praise, or simple conversation. We can express our love and awe of a God, or we can beseech, asking for assistance in our lives, for whatever we feel we need. One can pray whenever and however one wishes; it is an act of freedom.

On the other hand, in formal Orphic ritual, prayers are made in the offering section before the final hymns to Íra (Hera; Gr. Ήρα) and Zefs (Zeus; Gr. Ζεύς). Thæouryía (Theurgy; Gr. Θεουργία) [1], a much misunderstood word that simply refers to the ritualized act of worship, is also communication with Gods; it incorporates prayer, but ritual is formalized. Prayer may be performed in this ceremonial manner...it is a great expression of our tradition... but prayer can also occur outside of ritual.

We can recite beautiful prayers written either by ourselves or others. For most people, it would seem, prayer emerges spontaneously, from the depths of your soul. In prayer we reach for the divine, to the Gods, those intellects and souls who are far greater than we, and who have a superior capacity beyond our means, and who have the ability to advance us towards a more elevated state; that is, if we allow them to, for we are free and must be willing.

The Gods are endowed with enormous facility to affect our lives both in the ordinary world of our day-to-day trials and tribulations, but above all else, supernally, inspiring us to more lofty ambitions than we may presently be capable, this latter objective vastly superior to the former. The Gods answer our prayers in ways which at times may be obscure, but always as the best possible solution to our difficulties, although we may not perceive it that way.

Reciprocity, Prayer, and Hellenismos

There is a common belief in the modern Hellenic community, that in our religion, Gods and mortals are in a reciprocal relationship; in other words, that a God will not bestow a benefit without an appropriate gift. There is some truth in this idea in that if you are not willing to give, if you are not willing to participate, to do your part in society, both Gods and men will lose interest in you, whether you pray or not. Even the souls of creatures of low progress, both human and otherwise, are pushed forward by the Gods, despite our selfishness, for the Gods are the masters of Nature and its laws, laws which govern this process. Opportunities are given to us and the Gods are patient, yet we are free and can choose. As human beings, social creatures of high intelligence, our choices determine much in our lives. Those who choose to engage the world have enormous potential to advance; those who do not, are left behind. This is a type of reciprocity in that both Gods and men respond to our engagement with them. If the gift accompanying a prayer is symbolic of this type of reciprocity, it is appropriate; otherwise, it is a type of magic (see below) and improper.

For the most part, however, the common idea of reciprocity, quid pro quo, is quite incorrect and (rather innocently) offensive, as it should be obvious, for the Gods are not trivial; if they were petty they could not be Gods, because, by definition, Gods are beings of surpassing majesty, power, and enlightenment. Nonetheless, there is some truth to the idea of reciprocity, but not in the way it is usually understood. There is indeed a reciprocal relationship between Gods and men, but this interchange is of a much higher nature. The reciprocity of the Gods is based on Ǽrohs (Eros; Gr. Ἔρως), the power of attraction. When we move closer to the Gods, by our attraction to their beauty and goodness, they, by their very nature, move closer to us, greatly closer. There then ensues a glorious interaction in which Ǽrohs flows back and forth between Gods and mortals, and this exchange is based on freedom and love, not barter. This is one reason, if not the primary reason we have such maxims as "Follow God" [2] and "Worship the Gods" [3], not in order to obtain presents from them, but rather because we love them. In ancient literature you will often find phrases about various personages who were said to "love the Gods." Thus, our prayers are first and foremost an expression of our love of the Gods; it is because of our love for them that we approach them, as we would approach our dearest friend, and even more so, for the Gods are our greatest confidants and advisers. Without Ǽrohs towards the Gods, prayers are meaningless and ineffectual. If prayers are accompanied by an offering, this offering should not be thought of as barter, but, rather, symbolic of our love for the Gods.


Prayer and the Natural Laws 

In nature there are both personal and impersonal deities. The personal Gods can hear and respond to one's prayers. The impersonal deities are fundamental forces, sacred by nature, but difficult to approach, because such deity does not have consciousness. These impersonal deities are mighty principals and powers inherent in our lives, principals such as Justice (Díki; Gr. Δίκη) or Equity (Dikaiosýni; Gr. Δικαιοσύνη); or they can be phenomena of the Kózmos (Cosmos; Gr. Κόσμος) such as the Natural Laws. On one level, when we pray to an Olympian deity, we are praying to the Natural Law over which this God has sovereignty. These laws are deities in themselves, but impersonal. The Olympian Gods, however, are personal deities who can hear our prayers and respond, and they have dominion over the Natural Laws, each of the Twelve Gods having sovereignty over one law. From this perspective, for example, when we pray to Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων), we pray to Freedom; when we pray to Aphrodíti (Gr. Ἀφροδίτη), we pray to Harmony; and so forth. With the exception of the most primordial of Gods, the myriad hosts of deities are the sons and daughters of the Olympians; they also hear our prayers and have some interest in the domain of their respective progenitors.

Since, at present, our discussion is of the Natural Laws, it should be noted that a prayer request that violates these laws presents a dilemma, for while the Olympian Gods, and their many minions, have dominion over the Natural Laws, they cannot and never do violate them. Therefore, miracles, as something beyond the Laws of Nature, are not a logical expectation. There is a type of miracle, but such a miracle is always within the laws of nature. One of the Delphic 

Maxims exhorts us to honor this principle:

"Pray for things possible." [4]

Of course one can pray to any God for whatever reason…please do not be misled. It is a common misunderstanding: many people feel that prayers must be directed only to the deity who is known to have an interest in something for which we pray. The conventional fields of interest of the Gods, which tradition tells us they love, do not limit their ability to assist mortals in other areas.


Prayer and Effort

The Gods will help you; they support you; they have an interest in your well-being and in your progress. Yet you yourself must try.  If you are willing to exert effort and struggle to achieve the things you want, and if you petition their support, the Gods will work by your side and help you. The famous fable of Aisohpos (Aesop; Gr. Αἴσωπος), Herakles and the Wagoner, illustrates this point of Hellenic religion. It is the tale of a man whose cart was stuck in the mud. He prayed to Iraklís (Herakles or Hercules; Gr.  Ἡρακλῆς) to help him. The God appeared and insisted that the man get up and push the cart with his own effort in which case he would work beside him. In modern times this fable is told with Athiná (Athena; Gr. Ἀθηνᾶ) as the deity, hence the proverb known to everyone in Greece:

Συν Αθηνά και χείρα κίνει.


Together with Athiná, move your own hand.

Of course this is not so unfamiliar to us who have heard the familiar phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” And we agree. In other words, the approach in Ællinismόs is not passive: we do not simply receive, but our action is a major constituent in the fruition of a prayer. Perhaps we are unwilling to take the action required to improve our situation. In such a case, the assistance of Gods is limited by our own inertia, making one's progress much slower than desired. 


The Superficial View of Prayer

The cursory view of prayer is a major source of atheism, no doubt, and an expression of childishness and superstition. The idea that you can pray to a God and therefore receive a present is actually viewing prayer as magic; in other words, we say an incantation (the prayer), make an offering, and force a God to act. This idea is offensive, but in our naïveté, we do not realize it. The Gods live in freedom and our prayers cannot coerce them to act, even if we "bribe" them with an offering. Expecting a gift or a favor in return for prayers and offerings violates a God’s freedom because such a transaction would create an obligation which need not be honored by any God. Such a transaction would be a sort of contract in which both parties would need agree to terms; but such an agreement is generally not available to mortals. When prayers are not answered to our specifications, we question whether the Gods actually exist. This is, in truth, the attitude of a child. The Gods desire to help us, to truly help us, but they are not simply vending machines. Of course, we can petition the Gods for help with genuine piety, but this is very different from demanding presents in return for our offerings.

Traditionally, it is said that the Gods are "a million times wiser" than us. This means that their understanding and ability is vastly superior to ours and, because of that fact, their actions are beyond our full comprehension; we cannot fathom the minds of the Gods. Our view of a solution to a problem may be incorrect or incomplete. The Gods are concerned about our well-being, our development of virtue, our progress. This ascending evolution occurs over many, many lifetimes. When we pray for favors of a mundane nature, it is like a child asking for candy. But even if the thing we request in prayer is of a higher nature, it is naïve to think that we could be certain of the solution to problems of the progress of our soul. It may appear to us that we are not receiving help from the Gods, but that is because we are too close to our problems to clearly understand the solution to them.

Truly heartfelt and pious prayers are always heard by the Gods and such prayers are always answered; they are answered at the most opportune moment and in the most efficient manner. Some prayers may not be answered for years, but the Gods do not ignore the pious and good-hearted. Nonetheless, it may be difficult for us to understand this.


Prayer and Destiny

An issue that is not often considered in respect to prayer is that of Destiny. According to Hellenic tradition, our birth, length of life, and death are measured out before we are born, as well as our basic situation. This is called Destiny and it is under the dominion of mighty Zefs (Zeus; Gr. Ζεύς) and his minions, the Mírai (Moirae; Gr. Μοῖραι), who are called the Fates. It is said that other Gods confer as well. We are presented with a life which is, in part, the result of pæprohmǽno (pepromeno; Gr. πεπρωμένο), things which have already occurred in the past and in previous lives which have bearing on our present life, something like the Eastern idea of karma. The manner in which we lead our life, eimarmǽni (heimarmene; Gr. εἱμαρμένη), can affect our fate in a positive or negative way, now and in the future, so we are not completely at the mercy of destiny at all. But when we consider all this, if a prayer-request goes contrary to the destiny which we have been given, if it goes contrary to the result of our actions in the past, we are actually asking a God to intervene on our behalf to Zefs himself to alter our fate, which is, of course, extraordinary. Zefs has the ability to do so, but he would have to have a compelling reason to want to, and who of us knows the minds of a God, especially such a God as Zefs.




Despite the various warnings concerning what may be inappropriate concerning prayer, we should not be afraid to supplicate the Gods for things we feel we need. Just as a child asks for things of his parents, we ask the Gods to assist us in our difficulties and for our health, adequate wealth, and the well-being of our country, family, and friends. Nonetheless, we must be realistic in our expectations. It is a pious thing to pray.

The suitability of a prayer-request, as well as one's attitude to the God, are issues. "Apóllohn, help me in my difficulty," is an appropriate prayer, leaving the details to the God. One must be prepared to do everything in your ability to improve your situation, expecting nothing; that is, to be humble in your expectations. It is a great thing to trust the Gods. Of course, you have the freedom to pray as you wish, however you wish, and whenever you desire to; it is a highly personal matter.  Nonetheless, if we assume that the Gods will answer our prayers to our exact specifications, we will be very disappointed and in reality we are acting with great ývris (hubris; Gr. ὕβρις). The Gods have far greater expertise than ourselves and do not simply give us everything we prayer for, just as parents, knowing what is best, always act on behalf of their child, regardless of the youth's demands. At times a toddler or even a teenager may fancy that his parents do not care for him at all, when, in reality, their refusal to grant a request is the expression of a deep and wise love, yielding benefits which may give fruit over a lifetime. The Gods would never make the mistake of the mother in this fable of Aisohpos (Aesop; Gr. Αἴσωπος):

THE THIEF AND HIS MOTHER: A BOY stole a lesson-book from one of his schoolfellows and took it home to his Mother. She not only abstained from beating him, but encouraged him. He next time stole a cloak and brought it to her, and she again commended him. The Youth, advanced to adulthood, proceeded to steal things of still greater value. At last he was caught in the very act, and having his hands bound behind him, was led away to the place of public execution. His Mother followed in the crowd and violently beat her breast in sorrow, whereupon the young man said, "I wish to say something to my Mother in her ear." She came close to him, and he quickly seized her ear with his teeth and bit it off. The Mother upbraided him as an unnatural child, whereon he replied, "Ah! if you had beaten me when I first stole and brought to you that lesson-book, I should not have come to this, nor have been thus led to a disgraceful death." [5]

The fable illustrates that what we desire is not necessarily in our best interest. The Gods do not give us everything we ask for; they never harm us as their nature is inclined to our benefit.

Praying for Others

It is most appropriate to put aside our own troubles for some time and consider the hardships of others. It is natural to first think of those people who are dear to us, our parents, extended family and friends. It is a pleasant thought to consider that the Gods may think kindly on people who possess a beauty great enough that someone would pray for them. And by praying for others we are forced to consider how our behavior may help or harm those we love and to, therefore, do a better job with ourselves as well.

Ancient Opinions Regarding Prayer  

Pythagóras (Gr. Πυθαγόρας) suggested not to pray for ourselves at all:

"He forbids men to pray for anything in particular for themselves, because they do not know what is good for them." [6]

Sohkrátis (Socrates; Gr. Σωκράτης) proposes that we be modest in our prayer-requests, leaving such wisdom to the Gods:

"And he (ed. Sohkrátis) used to pray to the Gods that they give him the simply good things, on the grounds that the Gods have the noblest knowledge about what sort of things are good. And he held that those who pray for gold or silver or tyranny or anything else of the sort pray no differently than if they should pray for a game of dice, a battle, or any of the other things as to which it is visibly unclear how they will turn out." [7]

Æpíctitos (Epictetus; Gr. Ἐπίκτητος), the Stoic philosopher (54-68 CE), in the beginning statements of the Ængkheirídion (Encheiridion; Gr. Ἐγχειρίδιον), lays the foundation for ease of mind, a foundation which gives us clues as to how to pray:

"Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things under our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; while the things not under our control are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember, therefore, that if what is naturally slavish you think to be free, and what is not your own to be your own, you will be hampered, will grieve, will be in turmoil, and will blame both Gods and men; while if you think only what is your own to be your own, and what is not your own to be, as it really is, not your own, then no one will ever be able to exert compulsion upon you, no one will hinder you, you will  blame no one, will find fault with no one, will do absolutely nothing against your will, you will have no personal enemy, no one will harm you, for neither is there any harm that can touch you." [8]

In the prayer of Æpíctitos, the philosopher prays only for the will of the Gods:

"Do with me what thou wilt: my will is thy will: I appeal not against thy judgments." [9]

At the end of the Ængkheirídion, Æpíctitos gives us another brief prayer:

"Lead thou me on, O Zeus (ed. Zefs), and Destiny,
To that goal long ago to me assigned.
I'll follow and not falter; if my will
Prove weak and craven, still I'll follow on." [10]

Some Fables of Aisohpos (Aesop; Gr. Αἴσωπος) regarding Prayer:

THE IMAGE OF MERCURY (Ærmís [Hermes; Gr. Ἑρμῆς]AND THE CARPENTER: A VERY POOR MAN, a Carpenter by trade, had a wooden image of Mercury, before which he made offerings day by day, and begged the idol to make him rich, but in spite of his entreaties he became poorer and poorer. At last, being very angry, he took his image down from its pedestal and dashed it against the wall. When its head was knocked off, out came a stream of gold, which the Carpenter quickly picked up and said, "Well, I think thou art altogether contradictory and unreasonable; for when I paid you honor, I reaped no benefits: but now that I maltreat you I am loaded with an abundance of riches." [11]

HERCULES AND THE WAGONER: A CARTER was driving a wagon along a country lane, when the wheels sank down deep into a rut. The rustic driver, stupefied and aghast, stood looking at the wagon, and did nothing but utter loud cries to Hercules to come and help him. Hercules, it is said, appeared and thus addressed him: "Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain." [12]

PLEASE VISIT THIS PAGE: Glossary of Prayer.

The story of the birth of the GodsOrphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.
How do we know there are Gods? Experiencing Gods.


(A list of abbreviations can be found here: GLOSSARY HOME PAGE)

[1] Thæouryía (Theurgy; Gr. Θεουργία) is translated literally as divine work. It is associated by many modern reconstructionists with magical practices, in part due to the writings of Iámvlikhos (Iamblichus; Gr. Ἰάμβλιχος), the Neoplatonic philosopher. Because it is thought of as involving superstition and magic, its practice is discouraged by these groups. Nonetheless, according to the teacher of this author, Thæouryía is, simply, ritual. Therefore, whenever anyone does ritual, it is actually Thæouryía. The definition of Thæouryía is: communication with Gods through ritual.

[2] Delphic Maxim 1: Gr. Επου θεω.

[3] Delphic Maxim 3: Gr. Θεούς σέβου.

[4] Delphic Maxim 52: Εύχου δυνατά.

[5] Aesop's Fables, trans. George Fyler Townsend, 1871.

[6] Dioyǽnis Laǽrtios (Diogenes Laërtius; Gr. Διογένης Λαέρτιος) The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book VIII, Life of Pythagoras VI.; translated by C. D. Yonge, 1853, Henry G. Bohn (London England); p. 31.

[7] Memorabilia of Xænophóhn (Xenophon; Gr. Ξενοφῶν), Book I, Chapter 3.2, translated by Amy L. Bonnette, 1994, Cornell University Press (Ithaca and London), p. 18.

[8] Æpíctitos (Epictetus; Gr. Ἐπίκτητος) Ængkheirídion (Enchiridion; Gr. Ἐγχειρίδιον) 1-3; trans. W. A. Oldfather 1928, Epictetus: Discourses Books III-IV, The Encheiridion; Loeb 218, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge MA & London England), 2000 edition, p. 483.

[9] Epictetus by Schenkle, p. 158.

[10] Æpíctitos Ængkheirídion 53.1; Ibid. Oldfather.

[11] Aesop's Fables, Fable No. 149, trans. George Fyler Townsend, 1871.

[12] Aesop's Fables, Fable No. 12, trans. George Fyler Townsend, 1871.

More Appropriate Quotations:

Prier Dieu c'est se flatter qu'avec des paroles on changera toute la nature. "To pray to God is to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature." Voltaire

"Man, born to die, can no more be exempt from pain than from death.  To prevent an organized substance endowed with feeling from ever experiencing pain, it would be necessary that all the laws of nature should be changed; that matter should no longer be divisible; that it should neither have weight, action, nor force; that a rock might fall on an animal without crushing it; and that water should have no power to suffocate, or fire to burn it." Voltaire

"Such are the distributions of God.  He is on high; he sees us all and he knows what he does in the midst of his great stars." (The words of Jean Valjean to Cosette and Marius, as he was about to die.  From Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, Book Ninth, Chapter 5, just before the very end of the book.  Translated by Charles E. Wilbour in 1862.  As can be found in the 1998 Everyman's Library edition, Alfred A. Knopf [New York USA, London England, Toronto Canada], on p.1431.)

"God knows better than we do what we need." (Victor Hugo Les Misérables, Ibid. p.1427.)

" 'Tis very certain the desire of life
   Prolongs it: this is obvious to physicians,
When patients, neither plagued with friends nor wife,
Survive through very desperate conditions,
Because they still can hope, nor shines the knife
   Nor shears of Atropos before their visions:
Despair of all recovery spoils longevity,
And makes men's miseries of alarming brevity."  (Lord Byron Don Juan, Canto the Second, LXIV)

The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The Pætilía (Petelia, Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase (Γῆς παῖς εἰμί καὶ Οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος) are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kozmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara, κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo, Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς).

PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this HellenicGods.org, you will find fascinating stories. These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally; a literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is often concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

SPELLING: HellenicGods.org uses the Reuchlinian method of pronouncing ancient Greek, the system preferred by scholars from Greece itself. An approach was developed to enable the student to easily approximate the Greek words. Consequently, the way we spell words is unique, as this method of transliteration is exclusive to this website. For more information, visit these three pages: 

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