This is a chapter from a book on family rites I am working on. Any feedback would be appreciated:
Heathen prayers survived the ages very poorly. Very few survived, and of those that did, several are mere fragments. Nevertheless, prayer seems to have played an important role in ancient Heathen life, judging by number of prayers that did survive. The importance prayer played for converts immediately following the Conversion is also clearly portrayed in surviving sources, and it is doubtful that those recently converted would have so eagerly partaken in a ritual form that was alien to them. A letter to Abbot Mellitus for Augustine from Pope Gregory implies that the ancient Heathen Angles were familiar with prayer:
And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.
Prayer or bedes are nothing more than talking to the Gods and Goddesses. They can be very formal, as the bedes done in blót, semi-formal such as “grace” said over the evening meal, or very informal such as a casual discussion with one’s patron deity.
Prayers in the Lore
A few prayers did survive to be set down in writing. They are not many, but sufficient to give us some idea of how prayers were constructed. They vary, from the very formal to the causal. In addition to these bedes, similar forms such as the Anglo-Saxon charms and the Merseburg Charms survived. Perhaps the ancient prayer most are familiar with comes from the Sigdrífumál in the Elder Edda. It goes in translation as below:
Hail Day, Hail, Sons of Day!
Hail Night and New Moon!
With kind eyes look hither and grant us
Victory while we live.
Hail Gods! Hail Goddesses!
Hail bountiful Earth!
Grace us both with the gift of speech
And leech hands while we live.
(W H Auden & P B Taylor Translation.)
Another prayer that survived, this one from the Anglo-Saxon charm called variously Field Remedy, the Æcer-bót, or To Charm a Field follows:
Wes þú Hál, folde—fira módor;
(wassail Earth—Mankind’s mother)
béo þú growende—in godes f‘ðme,
(be thou growing—in god’s embrace)
fódor gefylled—firum tó nytte.
(With food filled—for men to use)
beorht blówende—þú gebletsod weorþ.
(bright blossoming—thou blessed worth)
Þæs hálgan name—þe þás heofongescóp,
(In that holy name—that the heaven shaped)
ond þás eorðan—þe wé on lífiaþ,
(and that of the earth—that we live in)
sé god—sé þás grundas geworhte,
(that god—that the grounds wrought)
geunne ús—growende giefe
(grant us—growing yield)
þæt ús corna gehwilc—cume tó nytte.
(that every kind of corn to us—comes to use)
Finally, here is a prayer recorded by Ibn Fadlan on his visit to the Rus:
Oh my lord, I have come far with many slave-girls and many sables ….Now With these offerings I come to you….Send me a merchant with lots of gold and willing to buy on my terms.
As can be seen, there was a great variety in how prayers might be done. Generally, though, bedes followed a set pattern. A greeting to a God or Goddess (or deities) opened the prayer. A boast of the God or Gods’ great deeds, or other mythological references could follow. The deities may be called on through various names and nicknames as in the Æcer-bót at this time as well. Finally, a petition or request ended the prayer with the promise of a gift or a sacrifice in return. The greeting seemed to have been quite simple, and not much different from greeting a person you met on the street. The boast however could be elaborate. A portion of a prayer to Þunor (Thor) survived in Snorri’s Skáldskaparmál:
You smashed the limbs of Leikn,
you bashed Þrivaldi;
you knocked down Starkaðr;
you trod Gjalp dead under foot.
The petition again, could be quite simple as well. The prayer from the Sigdrífumál for example just states “give us the gift of speech, and healing hands as we live.” The petition section can cover anything and everything. Think of anything your family might want or need, and you can ask the Gods, Goddesses, or ancestors for. Getting what you ask for is a different matter. Remember to, “a gift calls for a gift,” so one must promise the deities something in return for their help.
For use amongst one’s family, one need not be overly elaborate with their prayers. Most prayers are likely to be those of thanks, impromptu bedes made on special occasions such as a pay raise, a good report card, or a football game won. If one says bedes prior to a meal, these, while formal, can be “off the cuff.” They may mention the day’s events, or upcoming hopes such as a child passing an important test in school. Prayers for family rites may be more formal, and for guidance on these, one may wish to read the chapter on prayer in Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times.
For the most part, families need not worry about composing prayers using stave rhyme or alliteration, in the Elder Tongues, poetry, or with grandiose words. Prayers can be simple, but meaningful to the family members present. That is not to say, one cannot compose very complex prayers using alliterative poetry said in one of the ancient Germanic languages. It is to say that such is not a requirement. The Gods and Goddesses understand everyday English as well as they do Old Norse or Old English.
Physical actions during prayer have been of much debate within the Heathen community. In the early days of modern Germanic Heathenry, the attitude was that one always stood before the Gods and Goddesses. One never bowed, or kneeled. Research into the topic however, has revealed ancient Heathens may have adopted a different attitude. The Flateyjarbók, describes Hakon as falling prostate before the dís Þórgerðr when praying to her. In Hörd’s Saga, Þórstein falls before an idol and speaks to it. The Old Norse verb, lúta “to lout down, to bow, kneel” appears in several passages associated with prayers. Its cognate Old English lútan meant not only “to bend , stoop,” but also “to bow, make obeisance to.” The Æcer-bót begins “…ic stande,” but standan in Old English did not mean the same thing as “to stand” does now. It could simply mean “I remain in place,” thus one could be kneeling or bowing, and still be standende.
Grimm in Teutonic Mythology, maintained that the baring of the head, folding of hands, and many other gestures amongst Christians were perhaps Germanic in origin.
On the form and manner of heathen prayer we lack information; I merely conjecture that it was accompanied by a looking up to heaven, bending of the body (of which bidjan gave a hint), folding of hands, bowing of knees, uncovering of the head. These gestures grow out of a crude childlike notion of antiquity, that the human supplicant presents and submits himself to the mighty god, his conqueror, as a defenceless victim (see Suppl.).
(Stallybrass translator, Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. I, Chapter 3, page 2)
Therefore, how one and their family conduct their posture during prayer is largely a decision left to the family. Enough evidence exists to show that ancient Heathens did more than just stand during prayer, yet the modern preference is to stand (or in the case of “grace” be seated). However, the ancient Heathens may not have seen kneeling, bowing, going prostate, as subservience to, or fear of, the Gods and Goddesses (although it would be understandable if they did see it this way). It could have simply been a way of showing deep respect. Bowing one’s head during prayers before meals might be a way of teaching children respect for the Gods and Goddesses, as could kneeling, when saying bedtime prayers. Regardless, such is at a family’s discretion.
Use of Prayer
Unlike Christians, Germanic Heathens do not generally have weekly worship services. It is therefore difficult for a Heathen family to feel that they worship together as a family. Modern life makes for busy, conflicting schedules, which do not allow for any sort of informal worship or studies together. Bedes therefore fill an important role for the Heathen family. Beyond the aim of receiving the favor of the Ése (Aesir) and Wen (Vanir), prayers can serve as a way of uniting a family in worship, a teaching tool for the young, and further re-enforce one’s own dedication as a Heathen. Bedes can serve as a brief way to celebrate a special occasion, a prayer of thanks. Prayers may be said in times of crisis, such as to ask for help for a sick or injured loved one. They can be used daily as a type of “grace” said before meals. Bedes are the basis of Heathen worship, a building block in blót and other Heathen rites. They can therefore serve as a building block of worship between the major holy tides for a family.
One need not pray to the Gods and Goddesses alone however. One may pray to ancestors, and this would certainly help unite a family by preserving its history (not to mention gain the help of ancient Heathen ancestors). Orlæg (Old Norse Orlög) after all, is said to be passed down family lines, and we know that DNA is. Getting in touch with one’s heritage, therefore, could serve as a tool for good interactions amongst one’s living family members.
In addition, some studies have shown that prayer, regardless of religion, can improve the chances of recovery for those suffering injury or disease (though there are also some that have shown prayer has no effect). The first to do an extensive scientific study was Randolph Byrd in 1988. Byrd used Christians to pray for 393 patients San Francisco General Medical Center with cardiovascular problems. After ten months, those for whom prayer groups said prayers for, showed marked improvement compared to those that had not been. Dr. Elisabeth Targ did a similar study also in 1998 using AIDS patients. Instead of just Christians however, she involved also Jews, Native Americans, and Buddhists, as well as those of other religions. Her results showed that those not prayed for spent six times as long in hospital and contracted three times as many illnesses. In 2001, Dr. William Harris, a cardiologist, lead a team at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. His study, unlike that of Byrd’s used a variety of Christian denominations. Those prayed for in his study stayed in the hospital the same amount of time, but again showed marked improvement. Even in those studies that show prayer had no effect, there seem to have been slight improvement in the patients prayer groups said prayers for. The Mayo Clinc performed a study in 1999 that seemed to disprove the power of prayer. As a study group, they used 799 coronary care unit patients. At the end of the study, they concluded there was no effect on recovery. However, their research showed that only 25.6% of all patients prayed for reached an end point, while 29.3% of all patients for whom no prayers were spoken (at least by the assigned prayer groups) reached an end point. An end point was defined as death, cardiac arrest or coronary revascularization, emergency department visit for cardiovascular disease, or re-hospitalization for cardiovascular disease. (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, Effectiveness of “distant healing” prayer accessed from http://www.religioustolerance.org/medical6.htm on April 4, 2006) While this nearly 4% difference in recovery between those prayed for and those that were not may seem insignificant to the researchers, to the families of the patients involved it must seem very significant.
Finally, just as meditation can improve the mental health of the practitioner, so prayer may do the same for a family. Prayer, like meditation causes an individual to focus their thoughts, and in a group can serve as a form of guided meditation. Even the medical community recognizes meditation as a way to handle stress, and as such believes it may have long term health benefits. In 1968, Dr. Herbert Benson (ironically one of the MDs involved in a study that found prayer had little to no effect) conducted a study into the effects of transcendental meditation. He found that those that practiced meditation could lower their blood pressure. In another study, Richard J. Davidson, PhD found that participants that meditated had less stressful brain activity, and that meditation boosted the immune systems of those that meditated (The National Institutes of Health, Meditation, accessed from http://www.strive4impact.com/massage_files/Articles/Meditation.html on April 4, 2006).
Prayer can be much like meditation. Family members can be encouraged to clear their minds prior to a prayer (until they learn to do so), and to focus on the whole point of the bede or the words being said. Just the silence of those not praying out loud could contribute to a meditative state. Prayers need not be communally said, or statement and response as in some other religions.
Regardless of health benefits, the benefits to others, or other such benefits, prayer is another way that families can interact in a healthy fashion without the need for television or video games.
Family prayers can be said by the head of the family (that is one of the parents). This gives the others a chance to focus on what is being said. One can speak, chant, sing, or perhaps, even “poetically interpret” prayers. A family should use what works for them for them regardless of what other Heathens do. After all, part of being Heathen is laying down layers of customs to be used for future generations. As every tribe had different customs, so now every family may.
Some Sample Prayers
As stated above, family prayers can be fairly simple (indeed, most below are written for children). They need not be like the grand prayers of a group rite at a high holy tide. Therefore, the sample prayers below are short, simple enough for a child to say and remember, but still accomplish their task. One should by all means, compose their own prayers. Prayer should be a very personal thing; it is you and your family’s “talks” with the Gods and Goddesses.
A Mealtime Bless
Thanks be to Thunor for the rains that water the ground,
Thanks be to Fréa for fertilizing the fields that bring the food.
Thanks be to all the Gods that give us what we eat now.
A Bedtime Prayer
May the Gods keep me warm, dry, and safe,
As I go to bed this night.
Sweet dreams may I have,
And if I am scared may Frige hold me tight.
A Prayer for Travel
Now we go on the road,
May the Gods and Goddess ward us as we fare.
May they lighten any heavy loads,
and not allow us more than we can bear.
Putting on One’s Hammer
My hammer I place around my neck,
To ward and guide me as I trek,
Throughout the day may Thunor ward,
As I go about my daily chores.