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PRAYER IN HELLENISMOS
PROSÉFKHOMAI - ΠΡΟΣΕΥΧΟΜΑΙ

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

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OPENING REMARKS

The philosopher Æpíkouros (Epicurus, Ἐπίκουρος) believed that the Gods are so far removed from the human sphere that they neither harm us nor take any action to help us. If this were true, to pray to Gods would be a waste of time. Plátohn (Plato, Πλάτων), however, strongly disagrees with this view. In Nómi (The Laws, Νόμοι) he goes so far as to say that thinking that the Gods do not care for mankind is a form of impiety and should be avoided (Νόμοι Πλάτωνος 10.885b). The tradition held by the author of this essay falls on the side of Plátohn regarding this issue.

Praying to Gods is a revered act in Ællinismόs (Hellenismos, 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 Gods, or we can beseech, asking for assistance in our lives, for whatever we feel we need. 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.

Ritual (Theurgy, Θεουργία) [1] is the worship of the Gods. It is also communication with the divine and it incorporates prayer, but ritual is formalized and prayer is placed in a particular part of the rite. Prayer may be performed in this ceremonial manner, but it can also occur outside of ritual very simply. One may pray whenever and however one wishes; it is an act of freedom. We can recite beautiful prayers written either by ourselves or others, but for most people, prayer emerges spontaneously, from the depths of the soul.

In prayer we reach for the divine, to Gods who are far greater than us and who are endowed with a superior capacity beyond our means. They possess enormous facility to affect our lives both in the ordinary world and supernally, inspiring the soul to lofty ambitions, greater than we may presently be capable. This is possible, of course, only if we allow them to, for we are free and must be willing. 


RECIPROCITY, PRAYER, AND ÆLLINISMÓS

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, 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 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 could not possibly be 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, Ἔρως), the power of attraction to the beautiful. When we move closer to the Gods, by our attraction to their beauty and goodness, they respond and move closer to us, naturally. 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.

 

THE SUPERFICIAL VIEW OF PRAYER

The superficial view of prayer is a major source of atheism, and an expression of childishness and superstition. In some cases, this can even be a form of magic, which is impure. We utter 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. The Christians seem to believe it true, but even children discover that it is false:

And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” (New Testament John 14:13-14, King James translation) 

The commentators try to explain the verse for without commentary it cannot stand up to scrutiny.

Therefore, it is best to abandon the superficial view, for if we embrace it, when prayers are not answered to our specifications, if forces one to question whether the Gods care for us and if they actually exist. Such a view 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 gifts in exchange for offerings.

 

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 first try and be willing to exert effort to achieve the things you want. Then, if you petition their support, the Gods will work by your side and help you, if what you desire is truly for the good.

The famous fable of Aisohpos (Aesop, Αἴσωπος), Herakles and the Wagoner (292 Βοηλάτης καὶ Ἡρακλῆς Αἰσώπου), 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, 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.

There is a similar fable, The shipwrecked and Athiná (30 Ναυαγὸς καὶ Ἀθηνᾶ Αἰσώπου), telling the story of a rich Athenian sailing with other travelers, but the boat was overcome by a tempest and capsized. The traveler prayed to Athiná (Athena, Ἀθηνᾶ) and offered her great sacrifices if she should save him. One of the other travelers swam near and told him, “Indeed, pray to Athiná, but start swimming!” hence the proverb known to everyone in Greece:

Σύν Ἀθηνᾷ καί χεῖρα 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. 

 

PRAYER AND NATURE

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 divinities do not have consciousness. These impersonal deities are mighty principles and powers inherent in our lives, principals such as Justice (Díki, Δίκη) or Equity (Dikaiosýni, Δικαιοσύνη); or they can be phenomena of the Kózmos (Cosmos, 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, Ἀπόλλων), we pray to Freedom; when we pray to Aphrodíti (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 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]

In a similar vein, the philosopher Plotínos (Plotinus, Πλωτῖνος) suggests that by nature, some prayers are ineffectual:

"The Divinity must not fight for the cowardly; for the (cosmic) law decrees that in war life is saved by valor, and not by prayers. Nor is it by prayers that the fruits of the earth are obtained; they are produced only by labor. Nor can one have good health without taking care of it." [5]

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. For example, you may pray to any God for help in learning music, not only Apóllohn (Apollo, Ἀπόλλων).

 

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, this being our basic situation. This is called Destiny and it is under the dominion of mighty Zefs (Ζεύς) and his minions, the Mírai (Moirae, 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, 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, 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.

 

HOW SHOULD WE PRAY?

Supplication 

Despite the various warnings concerning what may be inappropriate concerning prayer, we should feel free to petition the Gods for things we feel we need. In doing so, we become a humble suppliant (ἱκέτης), for it is a pious thing to pray. Just as a child asks for things of his parents, we ask the Gods to assist us in our difficulties and for our health, and adequate wealth. Nonetheless, you should be realistic in your expectations and be prepared to do everything in your ability to improve your situation. 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, 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, Αἴσωπος):
 

“THE THIEF AND HIS MOTHER (200 Παῖς κλέπτης καὶ μήτηρ Αἰσώπου): 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.’ ” [6]     

The fable illustrates that what we desire is not necessarily in our best interest. The Gods do not give us everything we ask for, because they do not wish to harm us, as their nature is inclined to our benefit. 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 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 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 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...and this is always for good reason...but the Gods do not ignore the pious and good-hearted. Nonetheless, it may be difficult for us to understand this, for the ways of the Gods are inscrutable. They know us much better than we know ourselves and have cryptic and masterful means of influencing our lives. 

Ultimately, the best way to pray is to avoid asking for specific things and to simply petition the Gods to give you what they know to be best for you, in other words, to put yourself in the hands of the Gods. Trusting the Gods in this way is liberating. It will relieve you of a great burden.

 

Praying for Others

It is most appropriate to put aside our troubles 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, but we should extend ourselves and consider the sufferings and difficulties of all creatures. By praying for others we are forced to consider how our behavior may help or harm those we love and, therefore, to do a better job with ourselves. It is good to pray for the world and to pray for one’s country. It is said that it is good to imitate the Gods. What are the Gods doing? They are participating in the providence of Zefs (Ζεὺς), who has sent his son Diónysos (Διόνυσος) to free us. Therefore, since Zefs is compassionate, we should try to imitate him and act with warmth towards all our fellows and pray for them.

 

A LITTLE GREEK

If you would like to incorporate some ancient Greek into your devotions, you may begin your prayer with one of these phrases.

First, when addressing more than one God:

Greek: Ἔλθετε, Θεοὶ μάκαρες, ἀθάνατοι! Εἰσακούσατε προσευχήν ἐμοῦ!

Transliteration: Ǽlthætæ, Thæí mákaræs, athánati! EisaKOUsatæ prosefkhín æMOU!

English: Come, happy, deathless Gods! Hearken to my prayer


When addressing a single deity:


Greek: Ἐλθέ! Κλῦθί μευ εὐχομένου!

 

Transliteration: Ælthǽ! Klýthi (KLEE-thee) mef efkhomǽnou!

 

English: Come! Hear my prayer!

  

ANCIENT OPINIONS REGARDING PRAYER   

Pythagóras (Πυθαγόρας) suggests:

"He forbids men to pray for anything in particular for themselves, because they do not know what is good for them." [7]

  

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

"Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing), and, in a word, whatever are our own acts; not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and, in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance; but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both Gods and men; but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another's, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm." [8]

  

In the prayer of Æpíctitos, the philosopher places himself entirely in the hands 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, we find the prayer of Klæánthis (Cleanthes, Κλεάνθης):


"Lead me, O Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch, and still must follow." [10]

  

Aisohpos (Aesop, Αἴσωπος) regarding Prayer:

“HERCULES AND THE WAGONER (292 Βοηλάτης καὶ Ἡρακλῆς Αἰσώπου): 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.’ ” [11]

 

ADDITIONAL QUOTATIONS REGARDING PRAYER

 

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 MisérablesJean Valjean, Book Ninth, Chapter 5, just before the very end of the book.  Trans. Charles E. Wilbour, 1862.)

 

 

"God knows better than we do what we need." (Victor Hugo Les Misérables, trans. Charles E. Wilbour, 1862.)


PLEASE VISIT THIS PAGE: Glossary of Prayer.

 

NOTES: 

[1] Thæouryía (theurgy, Θεουργία) is translated literally as divine work. Many modern reconstructionists associate the word with magical practices, in part due to the book On the Mysteries of the Egyptians (Περὶ τῶν Αἰγυπτίων μυστηρίων) attributed to Iámvlikhos (Iamblichus, Ἰάμβλιχος), the Neoplatonic philosopher. Its practice is discouraged by these groups. Nonetheless, thæouryía is, simply, ritual. Therefore, whenever anyone does ritual, they are actually practicing thæouryía. The definition of thæouryía is “the worship of the Gods.” 

[2] Delphic Maxim 1: Ἕπου θεώ. 

[3] Delphic Maxim 3: Θεούς σέβου. 

[4] Delphic Maxim 52: Εύχου δυνατά. 

[5] Εννεάδες Πλωτίνου 3.2.8.36 trans. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, 1918. 

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

[7] Βίοι καὶ γνῶμαι τῶν ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ εὐδοκιμησάντων Διογένους Λαερτίου, Book 8, Life of Pythagoras 6.; trans. C. D. Yonge, 1853.

[8] Ἐγχειρίδιον Ἐπικτήτου 1, trans. George Long, 1888.

[9] trans. H. Schenkle, 1894.

[10] Ἐγχειρίδιον Ἐπικτήτου 53, trans. George Long, 1888.

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




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.


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.


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