Prayer in Ancient Greece

In this post we present excerpts from the memorable work of Athanasios Stageiritis* “Ogygia or Archaeology” (Ωγυγία ή Αρχαιολογία) which refer to praying and in general to the stance of Greeks towards the Divine.


From the first volume of “Ogygia or Archaeology”, p. 158-159 we read:

In Greek: “Οι Έλληνες είχον μέγα σέβας και μεγαλητέραν ελπίδα εις την ενέργειαν της προσευχής και ικεσίας. Όθεν δεν μετεχειρίζοντο επιχείρημα ή έργον πριν προσευχηθώσι. Αι δε προσευχαί ελέγοντο ευχαί, δεήσεις, ικεσίαι, Λιταί, εύγματα, αιτήματα, ευχαριστίαι και προσευχαί. Εκτός δε των ιδιαιτέρων προσευχών, είχον αι πόλεις και κοινάς δεήσεις, δια όλην την πόλιν (…) Συνήθως δε προσηύχοντο ιδιαιτέρως δις την ημέραν, το πρωί και εσπέρας. Και το μέν πρωί προσηύχοντο εις τους θεούς, το δ’ εσπέρας εις τους ήρωας και ημιθέους. Κατ’ άλλους δε τρις την ημέραν. Και η προσευχή εγίνετο προς τον ήλιον. Οίον, το πρωί προς ανατολάς, την μεσημβρίαν προς νότον, και το εσπέρας προς την δύσιν. Και ότε προσηύχοντο εις τους ουράνιους θεούς, ύψωναν τας χείρας άνω. Εις δε τους υποχθονίους, κάτω. Ότε δε προς τους θαλασσίους, έβλεπον προς την θάλασσαν”

In English: “The Greeks had great respect and greater hope in the energy of prayer and supplication. Hence, they were not trying to do any kind of work before praying. The various names of their prayers were: “ευχαί” (wishes), “δεήσεις” (obsecrations), “ικεσίαι” (entreaties), “Λιταί” (simples), “εύγματα” (prayers/wishes), “αιτήματα” (requests), “ευχαριστίαι” (thanks) and “προσευχαί” (prayers). In addition to the individual prayers, cities also had common obsecrations for the whole city. Usually, they privately prayed twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. And in the morning they prayed to the gods, while in the evening they prayed to the heroes and the demi-gods. According to others, they privately prayed three times each day. And the prayer was oriented towards the Sun. Therefore, their prayers were oriented to the East in the morning, to the South during the noon, and to the West during the evening. And while they were praying to the gods of the sky, they raised their hands up. While they were praying to the subterranean gods, their hands faced towards the Earth, and while praying to the sea-gods, they were looking towards the sea”


From the same volume, p.162-164

In Greek: «Μετά τον Χρυσούν αιώνα οι άνθρωποι διεφθάρησαν ολοτελώς, και δεν εφύλαττον ούτε συμφωνίας, ούτε υποσχέσεις, ούτε άλλα τοιαύτα συντηρητικά της ησυχίας του κοινωνικού βίου. Όθεν επενοήθη ο όρκος εις χαλίνωσιν της διαφθοράς εκείνης, και εμυθολογήθη ότι ήτον θεός και υιός της Έριδος. Επειδή η διχόνοια και φιλονεικία εγέννησε τον όρκον. Αλλ’ ή εκείνος ή άλλος, ο σκοπός ήτον να εμπνεύση εις τους ανθρώπους τον φόβον των θεών, περί του οποίου δεν εφρόντιζον οι άνθρωποι τότε (…) Τινές δε απέφευγον τον όρκον, ως λέγει και ο Μένανδρος. ‘όρκον δε φεύγε, κάν δικαίως ομνύεις’. Ο δε Πυθαγόρας και οι οπαδοί αυτού ώμνυον τούτον τον τρόπον. Ναι μά τον αμετέρα ψυχά παραδόντα τετρακτύν παγάν αενάου φύσεως ριζώματ’ έχουσαν. Επειδή ενόμιζον την εντέλειαν της ψυχής εις τα τέσσαρα ταύτα συνισταμένην. Εις τον νουν, γνώσιν, αίσθησιν και συλλογισμόν. Ο δε Σωκράτης ώμνυεν εις τα ζώα. Νή τον κύνα, χήνα, ή και τον πλάτανον, εμποδίζων και τους μαθητάς αυτού, φέρων παράδειγμα τον Ραδάμανθυν τον δικαιότατον άνθρωπον, ός τις συνεβούλευε να μη ομνύωσιν οι άνθρωποι εις τους θεούς»

In English: “After the Golden Aeon people were completely corrupted, and they were keeping no agreements, no promises, nor anything else preservative of the calmness of social life. Hence, the oath -“όρκος”- was invented in order to bridle that corruption, and a myth was being said that he -όρκος- was a god and son of Eris. Because discord and brawl gave birth to όρκος. Whether this or that, the purpose was to inspire people with the fear of the gods, which people did not care about then. Some of them avoided the oath, as Menander says, among others; “όρκον δε φεύγε, κάν δικαίως ομνύεις”, i.e. “avoid the oath even if you rightly (justly) take it”. Pythagoras and his followers were taking an oath like this; “Ναι μά τον αμετέρα ψυχά παραδόντα τετρακτύν παγάν αενάου φύσεως ριζώματ’ έχουσαν”, i.e. “yes, in the name of the one who delivered our souls the tetraktys, the spring of eternal nature, which has rhizomes” Because they thought the perfection of the soul as consisting of all four of the following: nous, knowledge, sense and reasoning. Socrates, on the other hand, was taking his oaths in the name of animals (e.g. the dog, the goose) and even in the name of trees (e.g. the plane tree), preventing his students to take oaths in the name of the gods, bringing Radamanthys, the most just man, as an example, who consulted that Men should not take oaths in the name of the gods”

NovoScriptorium: It appears that the Greeks until the Golden Aeon (5th cen. B.C.) were a deeply pious people. In all of their every-day actions they called upon the Divine. They avoided doing any short of activity without praying first! Hence, they were respectful, pious and praying, almost unstoppably we could say, and with a variety of prayers; individual prayers, prayers for the House/Family, prayers for their City/Polity, prayers for all the World. Prayers for the morning, prayers for the noon, prayers for the evening. They honored the gods, the heroes and the demi-gods, i.e. they honored both the Divine and their ancestors. We ignore what happened back then (5th cen. B.C.) and suddenly, the ‘fear of god’, piety, the inspired by god stance of life, begun to wear at such a dramatic rate that ways like the oath were invented in a desperate effort to control injustice and widespread corruption among people. Not with much surprise, we read that two of the most important Philosophers, Pythagoras and Socrates, rejected and condemned the practice of taking oaths in the name of the Divine.


*Athanasios Stageiritis was Professor of Greek Language at the Caesar’s Royal academy of Eastern languages Austria, Vienna (in German: Kaiserlich-königliche Akademie für Orientalische Sprachen). His memorable five-volume book ‘Ogygía’ was first published in Vienna during 1815.

Research-Selection-Translation-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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