Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos
Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
On prayers and hymns
I want to apologize for the mothballs covering this blog. I've been keeping up with my personal blog, but somehow, PaganSquare fell off the radar for a while. It's been nearly a month and that is unacceptable to you, kind readers, and to myself as well, as that was not the deal I made with Anne when I took the opportunity to blog at PaganSquare. A lot has happened here while I was away dealing with a boatload of personal issues, and I have no opinion on that for now. Perhaps at a later date. All I want to say about it right now is that I have never felt attacked, unwelcome, or in any other way uncomfortable at posting here. I stick to my own subjects and because of that, I seem to stay clear of a lot of trouble. It works for me. I'm not here to argue, I am here to share information. Please, be sure that my absence had nothing to do with these issues. For now, I would like to post on the strong link between prayers and hymns in the ancient Hellenic religion and modern Hellenismos, with a promise to resume regular postings here.
Probably the best definition of 'prayer' I have ever happened upon was by William D. Fuley, who says: "prayers (and hymns) are attempts by men and women to communicate with gods by means of the voice". It is simple, elegant, and accurate. Especially in the ancient Hellenic religion, it was important to raise one's voice when hymns were sung, and especially so when prayers were made.
I am going to generalize here and say that a hymn was sung to the Theoi, with the aim to please the God in question. They have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning contains two things: a note that the hymn is about to begin, and an announcement of whom the speaker/singer is addressing.
In the Orphic hymn to Pan, this is beautifully done:
"I Call strong Pan, the substance of the whole, etherial, marine, earthly, general soul, Immortal fire; for all the world is thine, and all are parts of thee, O pow'r divine. Come, blessed Pan, whom rural haunts delight, come, leaping, agile, wand'ring, starry light;"
The middle part tends to focus on why the God or Goddess in question is not only the best in solving the problem that will be posed to Them later on in prayer, but why they are the best, period. The middle section contains all the wonderful things the deity in question has done, His or Her greatest accomplishments, and above all, it contains a description of the deity. For Pan:
"The Hours and Seasons [Horai], wait thy high command, and round thy throne in graceful order stand. Goat-footed, horned, Bacchanalian Pan, fanatic pow'r, from whom the world began, Whose various parts by thee inspir'd, combine in endless dance and melody divine. In thee a refuge from our fears we find, those fears peculiar to the human kind. Thee shepherds, streams of water, goats rejoice, thou lov'st the chace, and Echo's secret voice: The sportive nymphs, thy ev'ry step attend, and all thy works fulfill their destin'd end.
O all-producing pow'r, much-fam'd, divine, the world's great ruler, rich increase is thine. All-fertile Pæan, heav'nly splendor pure, in fruits rejoicing, and in caves obscure. True serpent-horned Jove [Zeus], whose dreadful rage when rous'd, 'tis hard for mortals to asswage. By thee the earth wide-bosom'd deep and long, stands on a basis permanent and strong. Th' unwearied waters of the rolling sea, profoundly spreading, yield to thy decree. Old Ocean too reveres thy high command, whose liquid arms begirt the solid land.
The spacious air, whose nutrimental fire, and vivid blasts, the heat of life inspire the lighter frame of fire, whose sparkling eye shines on the summit of the azure sky, Submit alike to thee, whole general sway all parts of matter, various form'd obey. All nature's change thro' thy protecting care, and all mankind thy lib'ral bounties share: For these where'er dispers'd thro' boundless space, still find thy providence support their race."
The end is a prayer onto itself. The surviving hymns often conclude with a call to the deity in question to listen to the request that follows, and to grant it, should They be so inclined. The hymn to Pan concludes:
"Come, Bacchanalian, blessed power draw near, fanatic Pan, thy humble suppliant hear, Propitious to these holy rites attend, and grant my life may meet a prosp'rous end; Drive panic Fury too, wherever found, from human kind, to earth's remotest bound."
Hymns were sung to please, to bring forth. It was a way to celebrate the Deity in question, but also to make Him or Her more inclined to grant the following request. Hymns were accompanied with music and dancing; they were true celebrations in that regard. They were performed to establish existing kharis and built upon it: when the Orphic Hymns ask for 'a hymn' instead of incense, they request a show that entertains the Gods.
A prayer was carefully formulated to convey a message as persuasively as possible to the God, and was thus often spoken. The idea was not to please, but to request. They made use of the established and just now strengthened kharis to petition the Gods for aid. Where the hymn is an offering to go along with material sacrifice, the prayer is not an offering at all.
Hellenic prayer and hymn-singing is not a private thing; unlike the Christian type of praying we are used to today--a praying that is intimate, calm, and very much private--the Hellenic form of praying did and does everything it can to draw attention to itself as a public display. It is a form of heightened expression which claims the attention of a God. Hymns are a means to get a divine spotlight upon you, because without it, your prayer will fall upon deaf ears. This is why hymns and prayers always go together in the typical structure of (ancient) Hellenic ritual: one is useless without the other.
Ancient Hellenic prayers were made standing up, with arms raised. If you were the one pouring libations, the arms needn't be raised as high, but the libation-bowl was poised. For the Ouranic deities, the palms faced upwards, to the sky. For the Khthonic deities, the palms faced downwards, to the earth. To both, the voice is raised, so as to draw as much attention as possible.
I can't sing the ancient Hellenic hymns, but I do sing modern songs sometimes, when they apply. Not as a replacement of hymns, but as an addition to it. In general, I sing before reciting the hymn, as I do not want to break up the hymn. After the hymn, I commence with my prayer. Except in very rare instances, I always pray during formal ritual, mostly during my daily rites. I have prayed to Hermes when out on the road, opening with a short hymn and a long prayer to get me safely home when I was really too tired to drive. I have prayed to Athena before tests in school.
I can't always be overtly vocal with my hymns and prayers, although I wish I could. My evening rites are performed a meter or so away from my girlfriend who is by that time trying to sleep. In school, I could not very well shout out a hymn to Athena. That said, for prayers performed during times of need, I perform standard ritual before or after, making offerings to the Deity in question as part of a debt to be paid for the aid granted. It is my part of upholding our kharis. When we move out of our one bedroom apartment and into an actual house, I will have a room set aside to honor the Theoi. When that happens, I will be able to sing and raise my voice to praise the Theoi come day and night. Until hat happens, though, I will make due as I must with many things in our religion. I pray the Theoi are please with my sacrifice, regardless of the volume.
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