Praying Like a Pagan

Since I embarked on my journey into esotericism a little over twenty years ago, every so often I’ve encountered the sentiment among peers, colleagues, and acquaintances in the esoteric and largely neopagan communities expressing a distaste for the concept of prayer or any practice which shares cognates with practices of their family of origin’s, most often Christian, religion. The experience of religious trauma is something beyond the scope of this essay, but is a very real concern for many people and is a common experience shared among many who have escaped cults, fundamentalist religious groups, abusive religious settings, or other painful experiences with religion.

In seeking recourse to other spiritual practices, especially magical and pagan ones where this is a significant amount of freedom and an egalitarian and innovative spirit of approaching spirituality, the meaning of certain words and practices may become more flexible but fundamentally nearly all cultures and even magical practices participate and practice some sort of prayer, even if not called such by name. While this may be uncomfortable to acknowledge, it is equally a very positive opportunity to uncover the versatility of living a prayerful life and praying in a sincere pagan way which itself may facilitate a more empowering, and self-directed approach to life and relationships with the gods and powers that populate a polytheistic worldview and also strengthen one’s own magical practices if that is a part of their life.

At its most basic, “prayer” in the English is a derivative of the Latin “precari“, which means “to beg” and is probably the idea of prayer with which most people are familiar wherein the devotee prays to a perceived higher power and makes a request for some sort of action to take place. While this is type of petitionary prayer practice exists in all societies, its expression in particularly hardline and fundamentalist Christian communities can become very disempowering for a variety of reasons, yet even in Christianity itself a variety of types of prayer have always existed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four distinct types of prayer alone, namely: worship and praise,  petition and intercession, supplication, and thanksgiving which can be expressed or arise themselves from the two initial forms of mental or contemplative prayer and vocal prayer. While these are convenient categories – and ones that we’ll return to – mentioning them here is to give the polytheist a broader perspective of what prayer can be and also build a bridge into prayer in the pre-Christian world.

Fundamental pagan prayer can be summarized first in the Roman phrase do ut des, or, “I give that I may receive.” This concept of reciprocity, unlike the conventional Christian act of petition or intercession, requires no creedal commitment – which is to say, it’s not necessarily about accepting a particular cosmology or individual cultus. To put it into more secular terms, it can be compared to buying a drink for someone you find interesting at a bar or paying for a meal when having lunch with a prospective business associate. It is not guaranteed that things will turn out exactly as planned, but as a form of relational protocol can start the process toward a fuller and more reciprocal relationship. This relationship, developed over time and based upon mutual beneficial agreements can then become cultus, or what would be termed worship. While there is definitely evidence for contemplative prayer practices in polytheistic cultures, the primary emphasis is on what you do.

An example of this in the context of approaching a particular deity or power would first require the person to establish a conception of the deity or power through the lens of the culture, society, or religion from whence they come. In pre-Christian (and even Christian) theurgical understanding, this is called theoria, or establishing a contemplation, or realization, of that god or power. In the case of a traveler finding themselves inspired to make offerings at a temple in a foreign land – let’s say India – one would ask which deity is being revered at the temple, what their patronage is, and ideally ask what protocols exist to give them honor. If such communication is impossible, respectfully watching how others make offerings and doing the same can be done sometimes without incurring poor relationship with the locals or the beings themselves and can grow into a more fuller relationship.

Another example would could simply be to look up the mythological attributes of a particular pre-Christian deity, set out an offering of water, a candle, and read stories associated with them and maybe a hymn if such exists then ask for their blessing. This approach both combines a contemplative form of prayer, an outward form of offering, and finally a verbal component along with whatever petition one has thus fulfilling both theoria and making the steps toward cultus through the principles of reciprocity. In the case of the Greek god Hermes, it would not be out of place to print off a picture of the deity, frame it, place it near one’s doorway, offer water and pocket change and ask for blessings of safe travel and financial security while occasionally reciting one of the received hymns from literature. Over time, this can evolve into something a little more casual and impromptu and form into a cultus.

When one has established cultus, the relationship dynamic hopefully has been mutually beneficial much like any human relationship and at that point honoring them further through more elaborate offerings, prayers, and ritual may be desirable especially if they help you out with something significant. This could require some research into historical records, conversations with co-religionists who might already have a relationship with a particular god or power, and could evolve into something as complex as recreating historical celebrations as best as one can within the confines of the present era.

While it may seem exotic and strange, reaching this point of a relationship with a god and maybe multiple gods accidentally fulfills the four types of prayer mentioned at the start of this essay. Using the example of Hermes:

  1. Worship & Praise: Setting up a small shrine to Hermes, making an offering, and praying a traditional hymn.
  2. Petition & Intercession: Making subsequent requests to Hermes upon receiving beneficial results from the initial first interactions.
  3. Supplication: Relying on or acknowledging Hermes has improved your commute or that your finances have improved and your interactions with him are frequent enough that you can trust him like a friend.
  4. Thanksgiving: Returning the favors granted with gratitude through more offerings, more prayers, and deepening your studies and practices.

Prayer does not need to be particularly elaborate but absolutely can become so as can easily be seen in the beautiful temples and rich artistry found throughout the world in nearly every culture. It is often out of these small cults that culture itself expands and expresses itself in music, song, dance, and poetry as well as philosophy, ethics, and even practices we commonly think of as secular such as athletics. Praying like a pagan requires shifting the perspective that worship is solely owed to one particular being and requires strict adherence to externals and adopting a more holistic perspective or relationality and locus where the gods are literally infused in the various aspects of life.

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