Introduction

PART I: THE FOUNDATIONS OF WORSHIP

Chapter 1: Prayer

Poetic Structure, • Meter and Rhyme, • Poetic Style, • Poetic Ideas, • Prayer and Music, •
Gestures and Positions, • Performance, • Offerings and Sacrifice

Chapter 2: Ritual

Ritual Structure, • Building a Ritual

PART II: BUILDING RITUALS

Chapter 3: Beginnings

Openings, • Purifications, • Sacred Space

Chapter 4: The Home

The Land, • The Hearth, • The Door, • The Threshold, • Doorposts and Thresholds, • The House, • The Ancestors

Chapter 5: Callings

Chapter 6: Praise

Chapter 7: Thanksgivings and Graces

Thanksgivings, • Graces

Chapter 8: Consecrations and Blessings

Consecrations, • Blessings

Chapter 9: Times of the Day

False Dawn, • Dawn, • Morning, • Noon, • Sunset, • Before Sleep, • Night

Chapter 10: Times of the Month

Dark Moon, • New Moon, • Waxing Moon, • Full Moon, • Waning Moon

Chapter 11: Times of the Year

Imbolc, • Spring Equinox, • Spring, • Beltane, • Planting, • Summer’s Beginning, • Father’s Day, • Midsummers, • Summer, • American Independence Day, • Lughnasad, • Lammas, • Monsoon, • Harvest, • Fall Equinox, • Fall, • Apple Harvest, • Samhain, • Halloween, • Thanksgiving, • Planting Winter Wheat, • Beginning of Winter, • Yule, • Winter

Chapter 12: Times of Life

Birth, • Naming, • First Day of School/Graduation, • School, • Coming of Age, •
Wedding, • Death, • Funeral

Chapter 13: Endings

Separations, • Farewell, • Sacred Space

PART III: PETITIONING THE GODS

Chapter 14: General Requests and Offerings

Chapter 15: Prosperity

Work

Chapter 16: Thought, Speech, Inspiration

Divination

Chapter 17: Healing, Comfort, Safety, Travel

Healing, • Comfort, • Safety, • Travel

Chapter 18: Society and the Land

Society, • Urban Prayers, • Government, • Justice, • Peace, • The Land

Appendix A: Index of Offerings

Appendix B: Glossary of Deities

Works Cited

 

INTRODUCTION

“But Pagans don’t pray!” Of course they do— some of our earliest records of Paganism are prayers. Look at the Homeric hymns, the Rig Veda, the Hittite cuneiform tablets. Look at the earliest ethnographic accounts of American Indians, Polynesians, African tribesmen. Prayers are everywhere in the Pagan literature.

In response to this misconception, I wrote A Book of Pagan Prayer, in which I gave several hundred examples of modern prayers and presented a theory of prayer to help people write their own. The success of that book has proven something: Pagans, even modern ones, do indeed pray.

Even after the publication of A Book of Pagan Prayer, I continued to write prayers—it’s what I do. That led to this book.

A Pagan Ritual Prayer Book is in some ways a sequel, with even more prayers than my previous book. I’ve arranged it differently, however, so it can serve a slightly different purpose, to be of greater use in ritual. Pagans do pray for particular reasons, of course —for healing, prosperity, protection. A Book of Pagan Prayer dealt mainly with that kind of prayer. These have their place in this book as well.

There are, however, other kinds of prayers, those that form parts of rituals: starting them, accomplishing their aims, and bringing them to an end. These are prayers to encounter the sacred, to praise it, or often simply to acknowledge it. These are the prayers I concentrate on in this book.

Part I provides a discussion of prayer theory and gives an overview of the relationship between prayer and ritual. Part II follows the structure of a ritual, from calling people together to saying good-bye to both deities and people. Part II centers on petitionary prayers.

Before giving the prayers themselves, I’ve provided a discussion of prayer theory. This is not as extensive as in A Book of Pagan Prayer. My goal was to give enough information to allow this book to be useful on its own and to help people construct their own prayers, but without repeating too much from the previous book. I also wanted to present new material, things that I’ve learned since writing A Book of Pagan Prayer or that I didn’t have the space to put in that book.

In one sense, then, this book stands alone, while in another it is a continuation and expansion of my previous work. I’ve tried to present the most important points in different ways, so even those who have seen them before can gain something from them. Because of the emphasis on ritual, I’ve added a chapter on ritual theory. I’ve only been able to touch on the most basic features of this broad topic, concentrating on those connected with prayer. For those interested in a deeper study I’m working on a book about ritual, where I will cover the subject in more detail.

In writing this book, I’ve tried to consider feedback from readers of A Book of Pagan Prayer. For instance, one reviewer suggested that a book written by a single author would tend to be limited to deities that had a particular appeal to that person. I’d actually made an effort to avoid that, but fair enough. I’ve made even more effort in this book to include a large number of deities from as broad a range of cultures as possible. Even so, the majority of the prayers given here are to Indo-European, Egyptian, or Wiccan deities, since these are the most common cultures that Neo-Pagans operate in. And I hope I may be excused the personal foible of including some prayers to Proto- Indo-European deities.

I have attempted to remedy this further by writing some prayers to deities assigned by function rather than by name—to hearth deities, storm deities, etc. There are characteristics shared by types of deities in different cultures, so I have written these prayers to line up with the commonalities. Even some of the prayers I’ve written to particular deities can be adapted to others: Indra fighting the serpent Vtra isn’t too different from Thor and his opposition to the Midgard serpent.

Other reviewers remarked about the style of the prayers. My natural style is sparse. Some saw that as an advantage, but others found the prayers less moving for it. I’m not about to change my basic style, but for the sake of those who like their prayers more flowery I have written some that are less sparse. I must admit that making the effort to write them was a lot of fun.

The discussion of theory in Part 1 will raise more questions than it answers. It gives things to think about when writing or performing a prayer rather than instructions on what effect each prayer may have. It is intended as a place to start from, rather than a destination. I have included a bibliography to help point the way onward.

PART 1: THE FOUNDATIONS OF WORSHIP

CHAPTER 1

PRAYER

Prayer is communication with some form of the sacred, most often seen as a person or persons. It is a form of speech and, like speech in general, can be divided into marked and unmarked. Unmarked speech is informal. It can be called “conversational,” since it is the style we use in conversation. It’s a prose style, friendly, using everyday words in everyday arrangement: nothing fancy here. In prayer this style is most appropriate for deities with whom you are on very good terms, and for those who are close to people in general and therefore likely to be friendly to us—for instance hearth goddesses, homey deities who live with us and with whom we interact daily. Prayers to other kinds of beings can be in this style as well; ancestors, who were people like us, may enjoy it, as long as it is respectful. High gods like Zeus, on the other hand, may not appreciate being treated on chummy terms.

Conversational prayers are almost nonexistent among the prayers we have from ancient times. Although this may be due to the vagaries of survival, it may be because these less formal prayers express a theology that sees little distinction between the deities and humans—a belief not common in those times.

For other sorts of prayers, marked speech is most common. Marked speech is simply any form that is out of the ordinary. At one end of this spectrum is elevated prose like “newscasters’ speech,” in which grammatical niceties are observed, and words more common in written than spoken speech are used. The interest here is clarity and precision rather than decoration. The more formal types of elevated prose include technical terms; a good example is legal speech.

Elevated prose may include sentences that have become ritualized: “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It may contain archaic terms like “thou,” or words that still exist but are used with archaic meanings, such as “suffer” for “allow.” These words are used not just for their basic meanings, but also for their psychological and social implications. Fancy words are seen as expressing fancy thought.

In elevated prose, grammatical rules for word order may be played with—for instance, “For this I pray” rather than “I pray for this.” The style may be magisterial, conveying, without actually stating, that the occasion is an important one. Here we see the beginnings of poetry, in which the way something is expressed is as important as its literal meaning.

Elevated prose is often used in speeches. A classic example is the Gettysburg Address, which uses archaic and unusual terms: “four score and seven” is certainly not the common way to express “eighty-seven”; “brought forth” is not likely to be found in everyday speech, and “conceived,” at least in the sense that Lincoln used it, is equally uncommon.

These words are carefully chosen and arranged. There is, for instance, a parallelism in the structure of the speech. Something that is “brought forth” is something that has been “conceived.” There is the metaphor of the emergence of a country as that of a child. There is connecting structure between sections of the speech: “dedicate” and “consecrate” are repeated, and “who struggle here” is paired with “who fought here.” This is not casual speech; it has been carefully crafted to draw listeners in and to make a logical argument. It is beautiful, but its beauty is in service to its purpose.

This sort of speech requires a lot of practice and skill, careful planning and editing, or both. In the case of the Gettysburg Address, it was both; Lincoln had developed his speaking skill in years of legal argument and debate, and, despite the legend, the Address was not dashed off on the back of an envelope on the way to Gettysburg, but went through several drafts. (A wonderful history and for our purposes a very relevant account of this is found in Wills, 1993, 148-175.) I think this would be too much to expect when writing a prayer, at least at first, but it’s a good goal.

A very formal type of speech is found in the King James Bible. Contrary to what many think, the language of this translation is not the English spoken at the time of King James. It is consciously archaic, looking back toward Elizabethan England, but formalized to create a language that no one had ever actually spoken. Even at the time of the translation, it was marked. Moreover, the text was designed to be spoken rather than read, so careful attention was paid to flow, ease of pronunciation, and meter (Nicolson, 2003). The end result comes very close to poetry.

And it is poetry that is the most marked form of speech, and it was the most common form for prayers in ancient times. Even many prayers that seem at first to be prose have been shown to be structured like poetry (Watkins, 1995). It’s therefore useful to have a good knowledge of how poetry works when you are writing prayers.

Poetic Structure

It is difficult to define poetry, and the line between it and elevated prose is not always easy to draw. The definition in Wikpedia is “a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning.” This could be applied to some other forms of elevated prose as well. There are some differences, however; in poetry this definition is more intensely applied. In particular, poetry pays careful attention to beauty; it is decorative. This decoration, however, carries part of the meaning.

Although in recent years the rules governing the type of compositions considered to be poetry have loosened, there are traditional poetic formats. These may limit the number of lines, the meter, and the rhyme scheme. We all know about sonnets and haikus, for instance.

The grossest level of a poem is its overall structure. Is there one verse or more? If there are more than one, are they separated by a chorus? A verse/chorus structure is possible whether a prayer is sung or spoken. In either case it works well in groups, where a main celebrant may sing or say the verse, and everyone joins in on the chorus.

When composing a poem or prayer, you need to decide how many lines you want. If you are using a set format like a sonnet, this may be decided for you. (An English sonnet, for instance, has fourteen lines.) You also need to consider syllable count. Each line can consist of a set number of syllables. (In English sonnets, each line has ten.) Lines may have differing numbers of syllables, however, even in some set formats. The most familiar pattern of this is probably that of the haiku, with three lines in a syllable count of 5-7-5. I am very fond of this form, since it leads to short prayers that are still tightly constructed.

Haikus traditionally present a stripped-down description of nature that is then related to an emotional state or the transcendent, making them very suitable for Pagan prayers. A haiku prayer can end in a call to or praise of a divine being:

  • Winter snow lies thick
    on the frozen ground beneath:
    Hail, Winter Spirits!

The structure can be modified to suit your purpose. For instance, sometimes I use an extended haiku format. Instead of three lines, 5-7-5, I may use 5-7-5-5 or 5- 7-5-7:

  • Winter snow lies thick
    on the frozen ground beneath:
    Hail, Winter Spirits!
    Hail all of you here!

Or I may extend the number of syllables in the last line—5-7-6—or truncate the last line—5-7-4—or combine extended line length and truncated syllable count—5-7- 5-4—or the reverse:

  • Winter snow lies thick
    on the frozen ground beneath:
    Hail, Winter Spirits!
    Hail in the cold!

A final line with an unexpected number of syllables gives a strong feeling of completion; it sticks out as important. It is marked. The suddenness of the shorter line, for instance, makes the prayer feel complete, concrete. A longer line, on the other hand, may make you feel as if a new line has started but been left unfinished; the connection with the sacred is open. The first is good for a petitionary prayer, and the second is good for a calling or prayer of praise. Try them out and see what emotional response each evokes in you.

Other syllable counts can convey other feelings. Lines of the same length can create peace and contentment:

  • Winter snow lies thick
    covering the ground.
    Hail, Winter Spirits!

Lengthening or shortening the last line in non-haiku poems—5-5-6 or 6-6-5—can have an effect similar to their effect in haikus:

  • Winter snow lies thick
    covering the ground.
    Hail, bright Winter Spirits!

Play around with syllable counts, and they may become the unifying principle of your prayer style.

Meter and Rhyme

The next level down from syllable count is meter. This is the pattern of long and short syllables, or of accented and unaccented syllables, or of open and closed syllables. These overlap somewhat, with a closed syllable being longer than an open one, and long syllables tending to be accented. (An open syllable is a vowel or one ending with a vowel (V, CV), whereas a closed syllable ends in a consonant (VC, CVC).)

Meter is what drives a poetic line. Does it rush on, or take its time? Does it come smoothly to a stop, or end with a crash?

Meter is a skeleton on which to hang words, which means that the composer is creating order from chaos. This was an important part of ancient religion, so doing it within a prayer makes that prayer into a reflection of one of the goals of religion itself. By composing or speaking structured speech you become a creator of a well-ordered cosmos.

Meter also gives beauty to a prayer. This is in large part due to the response we have to good structure. It may also come from our strong connection to rhythm.

There are a variety of meters, each with a different feel. The famous iambic pentameter, in which each line has five groups of unstressed/stressed combinations of syllables, is a natural meter for English, and is therefore the easiest for us to write and the easiest on our ears. “We wish that you might come to us today.” More exotic meters can make a prayer more marked, but also more difficult to write well, with the danger of the language being a bit stilted. For instance, the trochee, which is made up of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one (the reverse of iambic), may have been the meter followed by the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala, but it is also that of “Hiawatha,” making it hard for those raised on Longfellow to take seriously.

Repetition within a prayer is similar to meter, giving it a structure around which the rest of the prayer turns. Some parts can be repeated and others not, as in a song with verses and choruses. This gives a combination of order and change that may well express the nature of a deity or aspects of the divine reality in which they operate.

Moreover, each time the repeated part is said, it drives itself deeper into our consciousness, each time modified by the nonrepeated part. These modifying words or phrases in a sense fall into the hole dug by the repetition of the other parts. The truth of the repetition is thus manifested in different ways, increasing your understanding of it.

One kind of prayer that uses repetition is a litany, which consists of a call and response. A main celebrant says one thing; this is answered by the others; the main celebrant says something else; the others answer, and so on. The others can repeat what the celebrant has said, or they can say something different, which is then repeated each time they respond:

  • Celebrant: We pray to the one who knows the runes.
    All: Odin is he,
    Odin is wise.
    Celebrant: We pray to the one who hears memory’s tales.
    All: Odin is he, Odin is wise.
    Celebrant: We pray to the one who rescued the mead.
    All: Odin is he, Odin is wise.

A variation on this is the question-and-answer format:

  • Celebrant: Who is the one who gives birth to the world?
    All: The Goddess is she, the mother of all.
    Celebrant: Who is the one who comforts the ailing?
    All: The Goddess is she, the mother of all.
    Celebrant: Who is the one who shines in the nighttime?
    All: The Goddess is she, the mother of all.

Finally, we come to word choice. All of the considerations of elevated prose apply here—archaisms, alliterations, and so on. These are more important in poetry than in prose. “Thou” sounds silly outside of the most elevated prose, but can fit in well with certain types of poems.

Word choice can follow a pattern. The best-known is rhyme. This is very common in modern poetry—so much so that many incorrectly see it as poetry’s defining characteristic. Rhyme was rare in the ancient world, however. A big reason for this is that many ancient languages are highly inflected. This means that the endings of words changed with their use. For instance, the usual Latin ending for a first-person plural verb (the “we” form) was -mus. This makes rhyming so easy and boring that there isn’t much point in it. In a sense, the endings don’t really rhyme, but rather are identical. It is harder to rhyme in modern English, so English rhymes can be both more subtle and more complex, and therefore more marked and more beautiful.

Rhyme schemes are as varied as meters. The easiest rhyme to construct is couplets—two lines that end in the same sound. These couplets are then “stacked” to make a poem in the form “aabbcc”, etc.:

  • Demeter, blesser of women and men,
    as was done of old we call you again,
    Holy Queen and Mother of Earth
    bring life, and bring laughter, and birth.

Couplets can become boring in a long prayer, but you can use that to lull the consciousness into an altered state. Couplets can also be used to good effect in litanies, with the response changing each time, but rhyming with the call.

More complicated, but more common, is an “abab” structure, in which the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, and so on:

  • Demeter, blesser of women and men,
    Queen and Mother of Earth,
    as was done of old we call you again,
    bring life, and bring laughter, and birth.

More complicated schemes exist. For instance, in addition to end rhymes, in which the last syllable of each line rhymes with the last syllable of other lines, there are internal rhymes, where words inside of each line rhyme with those inside of others. One of the prayers in this book contains both end and internal rhymes:

  • With rain, he brings us the greening,
    with grain, he brightens our days,
    with might he drives away falseness,
    with right he opens our ways.

Note that I have combined couplets formed by the internal lines with an “abcb” pattern formed by the end rhymes. This sort of poetry is hard to write, which is one reason why out of the hundreds of prayers in this book there is only one like it.

Shakespeare often used rhymes in an interesting way by ending unrhymed soliloquies with the rhymed words. After a number of unrhymed lines, there is a couplet. Take, for instance, “Henry IV, Part I, Act I, scene 2”, where, after twenty unrhymed lines, we find:

I’ll so offend as to make offense a skill, redeeming time when men think least I will.

One prayer in this book ends in this way:

  • Know this, then: averting my eyes I still praise;
    I honor with words, though not perhaps my gaze.

Using a couplet in this way can provide a clear ending to a prayer, without having to carry a rhyme scheme through the whole prayer. It can be especially useful in groups, where the couplet can be a good cue that the prayer is over.

Rhyme has the same advantages as meter. It provides structure, beauty, and ease of memorization. It also has the disadvantage of being more difficult to do well. There are many truly bad rhymed prayers out there. The most common danger is to use clichéd rhymes—the moon-Junespoon problem. In other instances, the words don’t rhyme exactly: for example, “mine” and “time.” An unrhymed prayer is better than a poorly rhymed one.

Another type of word choice is alliteration, which occurs when two words begin with the same sound: “bright and beautiful,” “great and glorious,” “dewy dawn.” Note that it is the sounds, not the spellings, that create the alliteration: “carefully” alliterates with “kill,” not “celebrate.” In some systems, all vowels alliterate, so that “easy” doesn’t alliterate just with “easel,” but with “aisle.”

Alliteration is the basis of Germanic poetry, which is made up of lines that are divided in half by a slight pause:

  • Holy in heaven, we hail you, Tyr.

In each half there are two accented syllables, or “lifts.” The main lift of the line is the first accented syllable in the second half. One or both of the lifts in the first half of the line must alliterate with it, but the second lift in the second half must not. There is more to Germanic poetic rules (see Tolkien, 2009, 45-50), but this will do for now. I bring this up here because it is a very appropriate style for prayers to Germanic deities, and because it is a natural and powerful style for English.

Synonyms help with word choice. One of the glories of English is its large vocabulary, and this can be used to great advantage in prayer. Synonyms can be useful if you want a word of a particular meter, or are looking for a rhyme, or for a word to alliterate. They rarely have exactly the same meaning, however. Their meanings can overlap in some ways and diverge in others. “Cease” implies a complete ending; “halt” is abrupt (Hayakawa, 1968, 593).

Even if the meanings of synonyms are the same, they often differ in level of formality. English has many synonyms in which one word is Germanic in origin—simple, friendly, everyday—and one is from Latin, French, or Greek— longer, formal, marked. Compare “ask” and “request.” Even Germanic words can differ in level of formality; “ask” is a very different word from “beseech.”

The use of synonyms in succeeding verses is called parallelism. This is a form of repetition in which it is the idea that’s repeated, not the words. For instance:

  • I pray to you for help,
    I ask you for your aid.

In this case, each line has two words that have synonyms in the other. This can even be done with more than three lines:

  • We give praise to the Shining Ones.
    We honor the High Holy Ones.
    We worship them as is right.

This example shows how you can combine different techniques for effect. “Give praise to,” “honor,” and “worship” are parallels that tie the three lines together, as does the number of syllables (eight per line) and the “we” at the beginning of each. The last line differs from the others, however. The first two have a second parallel—“Shining Ones” and “High Holy Ones.” This is missing in the final line, replaced by the pronoun “them,” which has been shifted toward the beginning. This leaves a hole, into which something new has been dropped—a reason for the action(s). There are two ways this structure can be expressed: 1 / 2 // 1 /2 // 1 / 3, or action//action//action/reason.

In these ways this prayer, short as it is, has been tied together and still provides a clear ending. We’ve seen the same clear ending in syllable counts and final couplets, and here we see how you can use more than one technique to cap off a prayer.

Other techniques can be used, of course—the two last words can alliterate, for instance. Don’t use too many of these techniques at once, however, or the prayer may seem fussy. Don’t feel as if you always have to have a hard-hitting end, either. Sometimes a prayer can be effective when it just trails off.

Poetic Style

Prayers should be beautiful, and there are many ways to achieve that. A prayer can be a gothic cathedral, lacy and strong. It can be a Japanese tea room, sparse and balanced. It can be a Picasso, showing different sides of an idea all at once. Pick a method and stick with it for the length of the prayer. Otherwise you will have a mess on your hands.

There are many other poetic techniques that can be used to good effect in prayers to increase both their beauty and their depth. This book is threatening to become a handbook on poetry, however, so I will simply recommend that you consult any one of a number of introductions to poetry. Wikipedia’s entry on “poetry” is a good place to start.

More important, read poets, especially the greats. You probably read them in school, but read them again. Read Whitman and Frost and Yeats, and yes, Shakespeare too, both his poetry and his prose. Read over your favorites— they’re your favorites for a reason. Read other people’s poetic prayers, ancient and modern, even non-Pagan ones. The Book of Common Prayer is a good source.

While you are reading, allow yourself to absorb. See what turns of phrase are used. Get a feel for how one word flows into another, and for how sentences are ordered. Pay attention to how two words that are supposed to mean the same thing can still feel different.

Immerse yourself in poets, pick up their style, and try to write like them. Write hymns to the Greek gods in the style of the Homeric hymns, and to the Vedic gods in the style of the Rig Veda. Don’t worry that you aren’t being original in this; you are trying on styles to find your own. Try out the styles of modern poets, too. Try to write a prayer like Frost or Yeats, for instance. Eventually you will find a style or styles that appeal to you. You will then find it easy to write in that style and to respond to prayers written in it.

Case in point: J. R. R. Tolkien wrote an extended poem in Germanic alliterative form (Tolkien, 1985). When I was reading it over the course of a few days, I became immersed in the style. As I was planning my day in the shower on one of those days, I realized that I was thinking in the style. Perhaps you won’t be influenced to that extent (perhaps you shouldn’t be), but some transfer will take place, and this will be a step toward developing your own style.

There is no shame in adopting another’s style. If it is beautiful, if it speaks to you, then why not? No sense reinventing the wheel. But maybe your survey of other people’s styles will lead you to realize that you don’t like any of them, and that may lead you to create your own style or styles. Great, go for it.

Do all this and you will find a style that works for you. Do that well enough, and your style will work for others. At the very least, however, do it well enough that it works for the deities to whom it is addressed. Don’t be so afraid that your work isn’t good enough that you abandon the effort; be just afraid enough to want to write the best prayers you can.

One thing that will help you in this is to remember that prayers are meant to be spoken aloud. You are writing for speech, not for sight. Speak your prayers, either as you compose them or after. You need to learn not only how words fit together, but also how they sound.

Good poetry is easy to say. A good structure keeps the tongue from tripping over words; one follows the other in a natural way. The beauty of structure makes possible a beauty of performance.

This overlaps with another function of specific forms— that they are comfortable by being familiar. For instance, even though the haiku wasn’t designed for prayer, its format is well-enough known that the format is comfortable to hear and say.

A nonintuitive function of structured form is that the work involved in creating a prayer can be balanced by the ease with which it can be said. The form does a share of the work. Well-structured prayers, no matter how much sweat has gone into them, can be easier to say than conversational ones.

Poetic Ideas

So far, we have talked about techniques for arranging words, for giving them a structure. There are also rules and techniques for arranging the ideas in a prayer—for how to structure the prayer as a whole. Writing prayers is made easier by using one of a number of prayer structures. In A Book of Pagan Prayer, I discussed one of them.

In this form, you begin by identifying the deity addressed. This can be done in one or more ways: by name, by title, or by relating a myth: “Indra, Killer of Vtra, who freed the cows.” Titles can express different sides of a deity. Is Brighid “inspirer of poets,” “goddess of the hearth,” or “provider of sustenance”? She is all of these, and a praise of her that mentions them all may be the better for it. Titles can also be used in a limiting way, to specify which aspect of the deity is being called upon—a kind of “heads-up” as to the request that is coming up. “Mars who guards my field” is subtly different from “Mars who guards our armies.”

Next comes praise. The relation of a myth may be considered praise, but something more explicit is commonly used. Titles often convey praise: “Bull of a thousand cows, warrior of unconquerable strength.”

This is followed by a reminder of what the worshipper has done for the deity in the past and vice versa: “To whom I have many times offered butter, offered foaming drinks, who has been my protector and aid in struggles past.” This establishes that the worshipper and the deity already have a relationship; one does favors for friends.

This may overlap and slide into reasons why the deity should grant the request. This can include favors done by the deity in the past, with the assumption that they’ll be willing to perform them again, and a reminder that the request is within the area of the deity’s function.

Then comes the current request: “I ask of you further protection, further aid, further support in today’s confrontation.” Note the parallels in our developing prayer. Words are repeated from previous lines (“protect,” “aid”) or replaced with synonyms (“struggles,” “confrontation”). There is also augmentation, perhaps to suggest that this request is a continuation of past gifts, or to drive the prayer forward: “protect” and “aid” becomes “protect,” “aid,” and “support.” The petition can be in the form of a request: “May you grant this.” Or, oddly enough, it may be spoken as a command: “Grant this.”

The prayer is finished with a promise or vow. It may be general: “I will always have reason to remember and praise you.” Or it may be more specific: “Wellprotected, I will offer you butter, burned in the fire, after my victory.”

The final prayer reads like this:

  • Indra, Killer of Vtra, who freed the cows,
    Bull of a thousand cows, warrior of unconquerable strength,
    to whom I have many times offered butter, offered foaming drinks,
    who has been my protector and aid in struggles past:
    I ask of you further protection, further aid, further support in today’s confrontation.
    Well-protected, I will offer to you butter, burned in the fire, after my victory.

This is the standard structure of prayers to Indo-European deities, those of most of the cultures from Europe to India, and it is a good one to use in general. Other cultures have other traditional structures. Typical Egyptian prayers, for instance (Redford, 2002, 313-4), are structured like this:

First is praise, often with many titles: “Isis, throne of kings, mother of gods and men, whose name was praised in Egypt and Rome.”

Then comes a description of the one praying, often self-deprecating: “I who am poor in goods, and weak in power, and in need of aid, pray to you.”

Next, a mention of a specific transgression, especially if it is seen as having caused the problem the prayer is about: “I, who in my weakness have violated the commands of heaven.”

Then follows the request, especially in terms of the violation: “I who am weak from transgressing the holy way, who have become ill from my transgression, ask for healing from the disease I suffer.”

Now comes a promise of future praise, especially in a public way: “I who have prayed to you will make your power well-known to those I encounter.”

Finally, there is a description of the request as if already granted: “I say this, I who have been healed by you, Isis, queen of heaven.”

So we have:

  • Isis, throne of kings, mother of gods and men,
    whose name was praised in Egypt and Rome,
    I, who am poor in goods, and weak in power, and in need of aid, pray to you,
    I, who in my weakness have violated the commands of heaven,
    I, who am weak from transgressing the holy way, who have become ill from my transgression, ask for healing from the disease I suffer.
    I, who have prayed to you will make your power well-known to those I encounter.
    I say this, I who have been healed by you, by Isis, queen of heaven.

A different structure used to address the kami, beings or things of sacred power, is found in Shintoism (Nelson, 1996, 108-13):

A call to those present: “You who have gathered here to pray to these kami on this day, hear me.”

A statement of purpose: “I pray that all might be made as pure as it is proper to be, as it is proper to do.”

An historical precedent, expressed as a myth: “As it was indeed pure when the land was made. It was then that Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto formed it. Then the
spear was dipped in the sea, stirred it into foam; then from the foam came the land, pure and shining.”

The reason the prayer is required: “Yet we have done impure deeds. We have broken divine laws. We have violated familial obligations. We have supported the wrong.”

A description of what is to be done: “When these are done, the people pour out sake, they dance in the ancient way to please the kami. Best of all things, and before these things, they purify themselves, washing in pure water. They wash the hands which offer, they wash the mouth that prays.”

Next, the way the kami will respond: “With our purification of ourselves, the kami will be inspired to purify perfectly. With the performance of proper rites, the kami will be inspired to purify all. Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanimi no Mokito will impart the purity of the new land to each and to all, for now and for the future.”

Finally, an ending: “This is what I say today.”

And so:

  • You who have gathered here to pray to these kami on this day, hear me.
    I pray that all might be made as pure as it is proper to be, as it is proper to do; as it was indeed pure when the land was made.
    It was then that Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto formed it. Then the spear was dipped in the sea, stirred it into foam; then from the foam came the land, pure and shining.
    Yet we have done impure deeds. We have broken divine laws. We have violated familial obligations. We have supported the wrong.
    When these are done, the people pour out sake, they dance in the ancient way to please the kami. Best of all things, and before these things, they purify themselves, washing in pure water. They wash the hands that offer, they wash the mouth that prays.
    With our purification of ourselves, the kami will be inspired to purify perfectly. With the performance of proper rites, the kami will be inspired to purify all. Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanimi no Mokito will impart the purity of the new land to each and to all, for now and for the future.
    This is what I say today.

There are other formats as well. One I often use is to go from the mundane to the sacred. First I describe the situation: the season has changed, I am sick, I lack inspiration. I then bring to mind a deity or an aspect of divine reality with which this may be linked by myth, function, or imagery. This gives the situation sacred meaning; I link the present with the eternal. In a sense, it’s like a haiku.

This is enough for praise or for observance of an occasion. For petitions, however, once I have connected the situation with a deity and gained contact with someone from whom I can ask a favor, I add a line or two expressing that.

The basic idea behind all these forms is the same, however: name the deity, make the request, state why the deity should respond, state what the worshipper will give in return. The order of the elements may vary, as well as their content, but these are the core concepts found in most prayers.

It’s a good thing if a prayer has an obvious end. This can be shown as simply as by a drop in your tone of voice. It can also be written into the prayer itself, as in the Shakespearian couplet.

Those who grew up in a Christian or Wiccan environment may feel that a prayer is unfinished without an “Amen” or “So mote it be.” This kind of ending can be in the language of the person praying (e.g., “So be it”) or the language associated with the deity prayed to (e.g., “Bíodh sé amhlaidh” for an Irish deity).

As we have seen, this can be especially useful in group rituals, where these words can be an affirmation by the group of what has been prayed by a particular person. It can be used as a punctuation point, separating prayers in a ritual. It can be used more than once in a prayer, as if one prayer were piled on another. If you do this, however, make sure the final ending phrase is more emphatic—by saying it more than once, for instance. A final line may be more elaborate, to put a seal on the prayer: “May it be so, may it be so, may it truly be so.”

I’ve spoken several times about beauty. That a prayer be beautiful is important for a number of reasons. One comes from the deities being individuals. They have free will, they have preferences. They are therefore more likely to be favorable toward those who please them, and beauty is pleasing.

Moreover, a cosmos is organized by aesthetic principles. A poorly constructed and performed prayer is like swimming against a stream, while a beautiful one has the power of the cosmos behind it; it is in accord with the way the cosmos works. It is in tune with the cosmos, and thus more in touch with the sacred. The more in tune with the cosmos you are, the easier it will be for the gods to grant your desires.

Also, when you are praying in praise of someone (e.g., a deity) or something (e.g., a season), the prayer should reflect that someone or something. It is part of Pagan theology that the sacred is beautiful (even when it is a terrible beauty), so a beautiful prayer will express in words what is actually going on. Finally, a beautiful prayer has an effect on the one praying. This is especially important in prayers praising deities or honoring seasons—the beauty of the prayer imprints the beauty of the target or occasion.