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  • Homeric Prayer
  • Donald Lateiner

Ancient Hellenic prayer, mortal pagan communication with the spirit-world, differs from other types, (say) Danish, Japanese, or Javanese, but modern conceptions of prayer have no better warrant than Homeric examples. What acts, gestures, words, and attitudes constitute any prayer, Hellenic prayer, and specifically Homeric prayer? Total abasement and mystic union with god may be more aberrant or atypical across time and space than aggressive chats or whining. A brief cross-cultural survey (a), introduces an examination of Hellenic prayers, their stages and elements (b), and then we turn to prayers in Homer's Iliad (c). Homeric prayer differs from later Greek traditions and literary epiphanies. Heroic mortals stand closer to gods than later thinkers imagined possible.

Prayer as a Subject for Investigation

The pray-er talks to god(s), an activity comprehending posture, feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, resolve, energy, and deeds. Prayer is power-talk, a sacred, creative language found in most religious traditions. "Words excel in expressive enlargement." Anthropologists record myths but few prayers, and more ritual acts than ritual words. Not all religions comprehend prayer (normally, invocation and demand or supplication for a boon), but available prayer traditions embrace curses, complaints, and even threats in their canons. A living god is a personal presence.1 Inadequately examined assumptions of similarity between ancient and modern attitudes [End Page 241] obstruct understanding of prayer.2 Homeric prayers, even in a limited and "literary" (no field recordings in Homer!) sample, vary widely in their formulae for establishing a relationship with god, in the ingenuity of their justifications for desired solutions, and in the measured responses that deities flourish.

Pisistratus says to Athena in man's disguise about stranger Telemachus: "He also will make prayer to the immortals, because all men need gods" (Ody. 3.47–48). Gods can do what humans cannot. Prayers vividly and fervently focus on human neediness, with or without humility. Even the pray-er who admits fault, crawls before god(s), and acknowledges his stinking state—by his very act—also deems himself worthy of a god's time and attention, implying—whether he is aware of it or not—his own self-importance. Examples from ancient Mesopotamia, and its spiritual offshoot Israel, document a personal religion (aside from the better known communal forms of worship) which bridges the gap between the distantly awesome and the nearby familiar. The supernatural power associated with an individual enables human success, like a parent, and brings "luck." An Old Babylonian letter from mortal Apil-adad offers a petulant complaint about divine disregard: "Why have you neglected me (so)? Who is going to give you one who can take my place? . . . Let your help reach me!"3

Humans regularly air grievances and joy. Prayer expresses human gratitude or complaint or a combination, ordinary and extraordinary monologues that mediate between those here, living now, and those beyond, living forever. Prayer transforms helpless victims of fate and mortality [End Page 242] into active performers, agents of protective reactions. Prayer, psychologically and constructively, vents an emotional overload. Prayer provides a vertical communication channel for the extraordinary claims of ad hoc survivors. Prayer, personal and corporate, then and now, demonstrates a verbal art, a coping strategy for surprise: pain, fear, confusion, despair, need, loss, elation, and anger.

Prayer, both a structured behavior and an associated state of being, reminds the more powerful of the less so. Some pray-ers and prayers excel; Chryses, Achilles, and Odysseus, aware of their limits, know the right heroic prayers at the right time. Homer's humans and gods recognize prayer as ritual—stylized speech, gestures, and postures. Prayer, whether protest or call for help, when heard, compels attention and response. If modern disbelievers disattend the excessively solemn and ethical theology of Semitic "purified" prayer, they may better appreciate the anger, vexation, and heightened tension of Homeric believers. In that world, the gods absolutely do exist and meddle regularly.4

Prayer activities unite antiquity and the present, but prayers are not always for the same things or performed in the same ways. Men and women continue to move apart (church, bedroom, cemetery, closet, etc.) in order to address an unseen power, to request help or...


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pp. 241-272
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