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Homeric Prayer

From: Arethusa
Volume 30, Number 2, Spring 1997
pp. 241-272 | 10.1353/are.1997.0013

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Homeric Prayer 241 241 Arethusa 30 (1997) 241–272 © 1997 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 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 1 Tambiah 1968.202, quotation; Metcalf 1989.3–4, an exception; 11: threats. I thank Bruce Heiden, Rick Newton, and Andrea Purvis for improvements to oral or written versions. ARE 30/2 no. 5 7/9/97, 11:14 AM241 242 Donald Lateiner 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 mor2 The repetitive and trite nature of non-literary, actual, or observable prayers and chants (e.g., Acts 19:34–36, litanies, and rosaries) controverts preconceptions that good prayer must be spontaneous and heartfelt conversation, neither rehearsed nor learned from another. Context and performance, however, can inspirit tired commonplaces, turning mere words and phrases into ritual substance and spiritual power. Gill 1981.183–86 reconciles the formulaic and creative elements of prayer by reintegrating verbal texts with gestural and paralinguistic performances. His study of Navajo prayer shows that even when the messages are logically “redundant,” the physical and emotional delivery, the setting, and the sound produce a “special frame of interpretation.” Semiotic redundancy penetrates situational distance and “static.” Even verbal redundancy, repetition of name or behest, often signifies the intensity of the pray-er’s need. Recent anthropological research sheds limited light on ancient Greek prayer, especially in literature, for text audiences may learn the...



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