To Please Your Heart: The Petitionary Prayer in Basic Hellenic Polytheistic Practice

I have heard it said several times now that a barrier to the speaker’s being able to take up the worship of the Greek Gods is the amount of study involved.

It is true that Hellenic reconstructionist polytheism—the practice of worshiping the Greek Gods in as near as possible the manner that They used to be worshiped—tends to involve considerable study. That’s rather the nature of reconstructionist practice. That said, study of the ancient sources is one sort of devotional act, and only one sort; it is not supposed to be mandatory. If you want to worship the Greek Gods, you should be able to learn how without spending hours beyond count buried in dry or would-be–poetic translations of millennia-old texts.

Let me introduce you to one simple means of worshiping the Greek Gods: the petition. One might call this the please-and-thank-you prayer.

And moving off to a safe distance, over and over
the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,
lord Apollo, “Hear me, Apollo! God of the silver bow
who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct—
lord in power of Tenedos—Smintheus, god of the plague!
If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart,
ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats
on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass.
Pay the Danaans back—your arrows for my tears!”

His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.

This prayer—lines 41 through 50 of the Fagles translation of Book I of Homer’s Iliad (78)—is a clear ancient example of the please-and-thank-you prayer. Just before the Iliad begins, the Greeks—identified here as ‘Danaans’—captured several young women, among them one Chryseis, daughter of Chryses, who is identified here as the ‘old priest’. In lines 1 through 40, Chryses attempts to bargain for Chryseis’s freedom, but Greek king Agamemnon denies Chryses the opportunity to ransom Chryseis, then kicks the old man out. Frightened, Chryses gets far enough along the Trojan shore to be sure of his safety, and then prays as above.

Notice the form of the prayer. First, Chryses calls on Apollo to “Hear me”: the Gods are not everywhere, but can be anywhere, if They have reason to be there—such as a worshiper calling Their name.

Second, Chryses describes some of the attributes and triumphs of Apollo: He is an archer. He was, as one online annotated version of the Lattimore translation of the Iliad points out, worshiped especially in the Trojan towns of Chryse and Cilla and on the island of Tenedos. Chryses may also be identifying Sminthe as a town where Apollo was particularly worshipped, or else calling on Apollo as a mouse God: I find the latter likelier, because of the association of mice and disease, and Chryses calls on Apollo lastly as a sender of plague.

Third, Chryses names things he has done in Apollo’s honor: he has built at least one shrine to Apollo, and he has offered animal sacrifices to Him.

Fourth is Chryses’s actual request: revenge on the Greeks who have kidnapped his daughter and will not permit Chryses to ransom her.

Chryses does not thank Apollo in so many words in these lines, but one might think of the offerings he has already made to Apollo as an advance thanks. One might also think that Chryses made more offerings to Apollo as soon as he was able.

So you see, by looking at this one passage of the Iliad, you the reader can easily reconstruct the general form of a petitionary prayer. You can then, sticking to that general form, adapt it to pray to almost any of the Greek Gods for basically anything in Their realm of influence. Here are some examples:

Hear me, Athena! Wise Goddess, clear-sighted, Who rules in each Athenaeum! If ever I have tutored a classmate in Your honor, help me study tonight so that I can pass my exam tomorrow morning. I will pour out water to You after I have finished the exam, and I will light incense to You once I know I have a passing grade.

Hear me, Athena! Goddess of the city, bringer of justice, defender of the people! If ever I have poured a libation to You or lit incense in Your name, please grant that the Delaware government pass and sign Senate Bill 97 so that transgender people in this state have the explicit protection of the law. Thank you.

Notice also how, though both these prayers address the same Goddess, I have varied the titles I address Her by to match what I am asking Her about: you might not want to ask Athena the librarian about justice, nor Athena the warrior about education, and you probably prefer to ask Hera, not Athena, about anything to do with marriage. (The Theoi Project is an exceedingly helpful source of historically and poetically attested titles and areas of interest for the Gods.) I have also varied the offerings I describe: Athena the librarian would hardly object to the fairly generic and standard offerings of a libation poured for Her—which might be water, wine, olive oil, milk, honey… anything liquid and tasty, really—or incense lit for Her. (Just don’t damage Her books.) But it seems more likely that She would be inclined to grant my request for help studying if I were to remind her of specifically education-related offerings I have made to Her.

That’s the crucial point, you see. Hellenic polytheism has a lot to do with reciprocity: if I have done you favors before or promise—trustworthily—to do you favors later, you will be more inclined to do me a favor now. Thus, the please-and-thank-you sort of Hellenic prayer, after calling on the God you’re praying to and praising Them but before asking for anything from Them, needs to have something you have done or will do for Them.

It isn’t difficult to worship the Greek Gods. You don’t even need to know very much about how to do it in order to actually do it. The important thing is that you do it: that you honor the Gods.

 

Works Cited

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books, 1998.
“Book 1: Lines 1-100”. The Iliad: An Annotated Guide. 23 Jan 2011. Accessed 8 Nov 2016.

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