In theurgy, the line between prayer, hymn, and incantation is blurred. Classical, formal prayer was rather formulaic while hymns were metrical and narrative, and incantations sometimes contained “barbarous words,” which were occasionally “barbarous” (meaning “foreign”) and were sometimes strings of vowels that are likely intended to be sung. One quickly turned to another, however, and at various times we see prayers that turn to hymns, hymns that end in prayers, and incantations that bust out in the middle of either.
While a prayer done in a much more informal manner might be done from time to time, following the formula allows one to outline the nature of the relation with the deity. For example, one might begin a prayer to a God and find themselves stuck in the justification step with nothing to say. That serves as an indication that more work with the deity is need is needed before any requests are made.
Iamblichus speaks a great deal on the benefits of prayer. In the De Mysteriis he writes that “extended practice of prayer nurtures our intellect, enlarges very greatly our soul’s receptivity to the Gods, reveals to men the life of the Gods, accustoms their eyes to the brightness of divine light, and gradually brings to perfection the capacity of our facilities for contact with the Gods, until it leads us up to the highest level of consciousness [of which we are capable]… And, in a word, it renders those who employ prayers, if we may express it, the familiar consorts of the Gods.”
Prayer is ultimately a significant thing. The goal of prayer isn’t merely communication with a deity, however; it is also the establishment and maintenance of a personal relation with one. Here is a general formula that can be broken down into predictable sections:
1. Attitude & Posture
Knowing the kind of God you’re approaching is reflective of the attitude and posture one should take for the prayer. For example:
- When praying to most Gods, one should stand with hands in the air and palms facing upward.
- For chthonic Gods or the dead, hands might not be raised, and the prayer may be murmured.
- Prayers to the Gods of the sea—and perhaps to nymphs and spirits of the earth—are spoken with the arms spread wide.
Kneeling isn’t common, but clutching the knees of sacred statues can sometimes occur.
This stage involves naming the God, usually beginning “Hear, O [God]”.
Naming a God is more than just giving a name; it’s important as it defines a relation. To name a God wrongly is to imply the wrong relation and thus prevent communion with the divine. Often, every name or epithet that might be relevant is invoked, often ending with “or whatever you wish to be called.” Such a string of names ensures knowledge of that God’s names and attributes and also exerts a somewhat hypnotic effect. The identification is sometimes followed by a recounting of relevant sacred stories and a mention of particular areas wherein a God may dwell or come from, often the location of that God’s most significant or most influential temple. (e.g. The Serapeum of Alexandria for Serapis, or the Temple of Artemis Ephesia for Artemis)
The justifications offered to the Gods consist of previous acts of piety: “If ever I have made sacrifice, kissed my hand to your image, set up a temple”, etc. This isn’t an attempt to guilt the deity into listening, but rather to remind the theurgist of their piety and the nature of their relation with the divine.
4. Petition or Praise
The worshiper can now ask for what they wish for, or offers praise. It is encouraged by great people such as Socrates for people to ask more wisely in their prayers, and many later philosophers simply pray for the Good. (e.g., the divine Julian, in his Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, prayed for all men to be granted knowledge of the Gods and for impiety to be outcasted.)
The vow ties to do ut des—“I give so that you may give”. This vow has a spiritual purpose as a promise to the God, and serves to ensure gratitude and also solidify the relation between the worship and the God.
Since a vow is tied to do ut des, the cycle of gift giving, vows are always positive, for example, “I will offer you a hecatomb of cattle”, or “I will burn you a handful of incense.” It is positive because you promise a gift, which is necessary for the gifting cycle. A negative vow is something done when one finds themselves in trouble, such as “I swear, if I get out of this, I will never go to the gambling den again!”, and is seen as improper since it is something that you do for yourself, not for the God; there is no exchange of gifts with a negative.
“Prayer Format.” Lārhūs Fyrnsida. February 21, 2017. Accessed August 30, 2017. https://larhusfyrnsida.com/prayer-format/.
Dunn, Patrick. The practical art of divine magic: contemporary & ancient techniques of Theurgy. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd, 2015.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Iamblichus. De mysteriis. Translated by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Nova Roma Citizens. “Rites and Rituals.” NOVA ROMA ::: RELIGIO ROMANA :::. Accessed August 31, 2017. http://www.novaroma.org/religio_romana/rites_and_rituals.html.
Versnel, H.S. Faith, hope and worship: aspects of religious mentality in the ancient world. Leiden: Brill, 1981.
Warrior, Valerie M. Roman Religion: A Sourcebook. (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2002), 38.
Warrior, Valerie M. Greek religion: a sourcebook. (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2009).