“Prayer” in a Heathen Context


Author’s note: This was originally posted on 9.19.2016 on “Of Axe And Plough”, and is used with permission.

For all its claim to empiricism, popular opinions remain barriers to reconstructionist Heathen practice. Whether through misunderstanding, poor scholarship, or emotive clinging to attitudes from previous religious engagements (example: Christian-themed cultural baggage), these opinions tend to shape the growth of Heathen religious traditions for years. In some extreme cases – especially in the wider Contemporary Pagan community – the conflation between practice and this emotional baggage results in the disregarding of similar traditions or concepts.

This phenomenon can be examined in the regrettably still common Heathen claim that the pre-Christian Germanic pagans did not “kneel before their gods”. A concerted effort from various corners of the scholastic Heathen community has largely dispelled this notion, and have largely shifted the paradigm in regards to the concept of genuflection in holy situations. Yet similar claims exist for other common practices, claims which have no backing in historical or anthropological records. Indeed, many of these individuals claim an argumentum ad ignorantiam. An appeal to ignorance based on the lack of contrary evidence, in such a culture of reconstructionism where primary source material is severely lacking, is a particularly dangerous and ultimately futile attempt to protect fragile emotional states which may press against uncomfortable baggage.

“Prayer” is one such practice which tends to find derision and criticism in contemporary Heathen groups. This is largely due to the associations with popular, particularly Christian, instances of prayer. The role and use of prayer within ritual are rarely, if ever, discussed within contemporary Heathenry, and individual practitioners often cannot articulate the purpose of prayer. This work will serve as an example for our discussion of prayer in the wider Indo-European context, in an effort to position the idea of “prayer” within a native Germanic tradition.

Understanding Prayer

Like many religious enactments within Indo-European practice, a combination of formalized prayer and ritualized action are performed in order to take part in the sacred exchange of the gifting cycle, the fundamental basis of these religions. Heathenry, as an orthopraxic religion, relies on these rites and statements just as much as other Indo-European paganisms. However, because we lack the source material for pre-Christian Germanic religious practice, alternative cultural examples must be explored in order to give a wider understanding of Germanic prayer.

Prayer supplications can – in part – be explored through oracular questions, literature, and other textual remnants. In approaching the antique (pre-Christian) context of prayer, the utilization of H.S. Versnel’s approach is aptly and appropriately done. In the case of the oracular questioning, the lesser-known oracles provide examples of the wants and needs of the day-to-day life of antiquity. Because of these insights, it is perhaps better to study the questions asked of individuals like the Egyptian magician Astrampsychos or the oracle of the Greeks at Dodona than it is to approach the most famous oracle sites in history, as at Delphi [1]. As notorious as Delphi’s oracles are to history, they are unsuitable for this examination of prayer in a common context, given their focus on legendary events and the utilization by an elite minority of statesmen or civic leaders.

These lesser-known oracular examples provide an example of the types of personal prayers which were common in supplication in antiquity. Importantly, they reflect the needs and wants of the day-to-day and provide examples of how modern practitioners of a polytheistic identity like Heathenry can find concordance within their daily lies in a formalized prayer structure. The similarity of thousands of examples of prayer across centuries show that humanity has maintained a striking similarity in prayer-format up through the modern period. Accepting that modern prayers are built on a foundation of classic, that is pre-Christian, prayers is the first step in understanding the role that they play in religious experience.

These prayers can be formally divided into three component parts, which follow C. Austfeld’s own division of prayer: invocatio, pars epica, and the preces[2]. Dissecting these components of prayer reveals three, distinct, elemental characteristics:

  1. The first is the invocatio. This forms a means by which the deity – or deities – are approached are formally invoked into the prayer formula or ritual format. Through the use of their names, surnames, epithets, or other identifying descriptive phrases, this constitutes the whom of the prayer: To whom it is addressed and directed.
  2. The second is the pars epica. This is typically portrayed in scholasticism as an ‘argument’, or a basis of explanation as to the why of the prayer. It is essentially a description of the benevolent nature of the God, insofar as that deity is disposed to intervene to mortal benefit, and why the prayer is to be/hoped to be productive in the capacity of being the God. It includes reasons the supplicant is approaching the deity invoked, the relationship which that supplicant has to the deity, the defense of asking for such things, and other reasonable explanations for approaching the god.
  3. The third is the preces. This can rightly be said to be the actual prayer itself. It consists of the service and task that the supplicant is beseeching the divine entity for, as well as any other loose ends within the prayer which need to be tied up. This is the end result and the objective of the whole engagement with the deity.[3]

These three aspects form, in essence, the totality of what is considered prayer in the sense of antique polytheism. Variations, of course, occur within history. But for the nature of polytheistic supplications, the most indispensable element to the prayer itself is the invocatio. A prayer is not, in the words of Bremer, a simple utterance of “HELP”, unguided and left open to the universe[4]. It is directed, aimed at a very specific divine entity, which is realized only through the formalized invocation of the god. However, of these three acts, the second has been identified as somewhat dispensable. A study of the Greek hymns would readily show a general lack of an ‘argument’ in various praise-prayer.

But even a deviation in particulars can highlight these particular forms of prayer creation. In an example Homeric hymn to Athena, taken from The Homeric Hymns in Apostolos N. Athanassakis’ work on the subject, we can find elements of these three categorizations. Consider the following:

“I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, defender of cities,

awesome goddess; she and Ares care for deeds of war,

cities being sacked and cries of battle.

And she protects an army going to war and returning,

Hail, O goddess, and grant me good fortune and happiness”[5]

In this traditional prayer, the deity Athena is invoked directly by name, epithet, and role as “Pallas Athena, defender of cities”. This is the invocatio, which appropriately directs the following prayer. Although Bremer does not place much in the way of an emphasis on the ‘argument’ of the prayer, we can see what could be construed as such a thing here. The writer actively defends his reasoning for the prayer: she is a warlike goddess, and protects those who go to war and are similarly returning from the conflict. Finally, the actual component of the prayer, the preces is simply stated: “Grant me good fortune and happiness.”

This tripartite division of prayer composition is inherent within Indo-European cultural prayers. Studies of Homeric hymns, Skaldic texts, local magcial and medicinal charms, and other similar writings. This indicates an important tradition of commonality in such things as meter and format, irrespective of the “level” of divinity being approached.

It should not be claimed that these prayers were only for the “highest” of deities within a culture’s religious world. It is a failing of contemporary practice in Heathenry to distinctly and arbitrarily divide the divine and their “roles” based on their relative position to humanity [6]. The ‘spheres of authority’ of these deities, whether ‘ancestral gods’, wights of the home or land, or celestial and infernal gods themselves, appear to be incorrectly and rigorously assigned. This is an utterly anachronistic, modernist approach which clashes with the traditionalism of Indo-European polytheism. Utilizing the history of these indigenous faiths, it can be seen that the ancients themselves would not have conceived in the divine in these separate ways.
Approaching the prayer formulas, and their implementation, we see that many of these prayers concern themselves with utterly mundane concepts: healing, travel, and safety, and a plethora of other socially ‘unimportant’ and intensely personal requests. We have discussed the oracle at Dodona precisely because it represents an intersection with “normal” people and the gods. In some Indo-European cultures, the concept of divinity was central to the idea a prayer, and not the varying degrees thereof. Versnel’s study of Roman prayer formulas account for this, where the idea of mis-apellation of a deity in prayer was so much of a cultural faux pas that the prayer formulas would either give the name ad hoc or left so wide that they could not potentially cause offense[7].

For the purposes of the continued discussion the modern anachronism of dividing the roles of the divine is dispensed with.

Prayer as an Indo-European Continuum

The smallest foundation of religious observance in modern Heathenry is the hearth cult. This traditional practice blurs the lines separating the priest and an individual position that does not have religious connotations. Whether this is within the nondescript house cult, or something more formally recognized as the Roman paterfamilias. An individual who necessarily performs hearth-based rites and rituals acts in the same tradition of an orator of prayer, a ritual poet, or other such official position within the Indo-European religious tradition.

There is a notable link in these traditions consisting of religious poetry, invocations and prayers, or hymns of praise which are directed towards the gods, all of which are inextricably linked to the worship of the being and the propagation and all the paraphernalia of that cult [8]. One of these traditions which spans Indo-European linguistic and poetic territory is the incidence of ‘name-giving’. This culture of giving personal names, typically a bipartite compound name, finds expression in various formulas and values, which form a nexus of tradition extending from India to the furthest extent of Western Europe. For this discussion, it is a tradition which is replicated in some of the oldest Celtic and Germanic linguistic monuments[9].

What is found is that extensive religious ritual texts can contain near-identical, if not wholly identical, enumerations in practice. A series of Hittite ritual texts grouped together contain litany-like spells and incantations in which physical maladies are addressed. These ritual texts are identical to Germanic, Indic, and Irish healing charms, and contain a linked formula with curative juxtapositions. Consider the following,

“ḫaštai=kan ḫaštai ḫandan

UZUSA=kan ANA UZUSA ḫandan

ēšḫar=kan ēšḫani ḫandan”

“bone to bone is fitted

sinew to sinew is fitted

blood to blood is fitted.” [10]

as a charm in Hurrian, especially when compared with the last two lines of the Second Merseburg Charm:

“ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda,

lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin”

“Bone to bone, blood to blood,

joints to joints, so may they be mended.” [11]

This sequence is an example of stylistic replication, between two very different cultures and two very different periods. For the purposes of this paper, it should be looked at as an indication that comparative analysis between even distantly related pieces is a worthwhile pursuit. We will be able to suggest further practices which are in line with this foundational cultural continuum as it is currently understood.

Studies of extant Germanic texts, particularly later expressions found in the Scandinavian literary corpus, shed some light on potential applications of prayer within a Heathen context.

A paper by John Lindow, published in the Spring 1988 edition of the Scandinavian Studies journal speaks to a handful of fragmentary texts which remain from the Scandinavian Sagas, which he interprets as a native attempt to bridge the gap between human and deity through prayer. This is done in several instances by invoking the deity directly, in apparent conflict with pervasive contemporary approaches towards Heathen religious understanding.

There are two fragmentary texts penned by Vetrliði Sumarliðason and Þorbjorn disarskald, the latter potentially the same man as Þorbjorn Þorkelsson, and later preserved by Snorri. Lindow considers the association and implication of these prayers: these texts attempt to bridge the gap between man and deity, invoking the deity directly, but have no small amount of anomalous considerations of their own.

An arguably problematic par of pieces, the first of which had been penned initially by Vetrliði, and then replicated in some respects by Þorbjorn. They have historically been argued to as either a Christian-influenced prayer, or a native representation steeped in the older tradition of Indo-European prayer. Lindow ultimately disagrees with the conclusion that these prayers were the result of influence by Christianity, and agrees with older scholars that these works represent some aspect of religious continuum indigenous to pre-Christian peoples of Europe[12].

Consider the fragmentary text of Vetrliði Sumarliðason, as it reads:

“Leggi brauzt Leiknar,

lamðir Þrivalda,

steypðir Starkeði,

stett of Glop dauða”

“You smashed the limbs of Leikn;

you bashed Þrivaldi;

you knocked down Starkaðr;

you trod Gjalp dead under foot” [13]

Scholars have identified two components of prayer components within the manuscript fragments: deific praise summarily followed by a request. In short, they contain the invocatio and the presces from the aforementioned Versnal prayer format.

Vetrliði’s extant stanza attempts to invoke the deity Thor, laying out the actual groundwork of the prayer itself by beseeching the Giant-Slayer to kill and maim the targets of his ire. While the poetry identifies no less than four men and women, it has been commonly accepted in scholarship that the two Christian missionaries Þangbrandr and Guðleifr were the targets of the text [14]. Vetrliði implicitly assigns two Jotun a piece, one male and female, per missionary, at once both including them in the mythological cycle as agents of destruction and chaos, and summarily emasculating and ‘othering’ each through identification with the feminine.

Vetrliði’s words were most effective at one thing: rousing the ire of the missionaries, who were said in the sources to have “attacked Vetrliði in such a way that a murder-hammer resounded from his head in the way that a smith’s hammer resounds from an anvil”[15] and summarily slew the man. This builds off of the known quality of Vetrliði raising a nið against Þangbrandr [16], and that he intended Thor to slay the missionaries like other trolls. Bo Almqvist concludes that Vetrliði’s extant verse is the first helming of his nið, and that the survival within Snorri’s works would put him in a position not to continue the recording of those lines, his religious ethos overriding his inclination to preserve his cultural heritage [17].

The study of other Indo-European prayers and traditions supports this comparison. Following in the footsteps of Chadwick, an exploration of the Iliad, or the Homeric hymns provide an European correlation. Vedic parallels lay the foundation of the overall origin-of-form for the Indo-European practice, especially those to Soma and Maruts containing the same invocatio and presces formats in blending praise and request. Vetrliði and Þorbjorn’s work simply represent the latest, and arguably last, pagan prayer type commonly shared among the Indo-European peoples[18].

Even the Merseburg charms, the other Germanic representation, show connection to epic poetry which implicitly praise a deity, then demanding some action. We have already seen how they share a tradition with older Indo-European linguistic charms. They are nevertheless useful to look at in the concept of a prayer. “Phol and Wotan went into the woods” and “bone to bone, blood to blood” can be seen as constituting vestigial aspects of the prayer formula; a clear connection to the cultural expression of prayer itself, and not simply related in meter or format to charms.


We have thus approached the idea that the Germanic peoples were capable of articulating what can be considered “traditional Indo-European prayer” and that the concept of prayer in contemporary Heathenry is not something which should be approached as a ‘vestigial Christianism’. It is very much an extant, attested tradition in its own right and would understandably be utilized as a central, important facet in the intersection of man and divine.

In the utilization of a comparative method, modern practitioners are capable of avoiding a deleterious disputation buttressed by fallacious arguments relating to the employment of traditional prayers and charm formats. The Austfeld/Versnal prayer-format, in some capacity, provides an easy-to-understand template for the history, purpose, and ultimate proliferation of uniquely Heathen prayers, approachable by contemporary practitioners eager to do so.

More importantly, in doing so, Heathens are not breaking with tradition in the slightest, but instead are engaging quite naturally within the cultural continuum of Indo-European polytheistic traditions. To argue the idea of prayer is a ‘foreign’ concept is ultimately to deny one’s practice the rich and fulfilling history of poetic composition, and allowing one’s emotional attachment to preconceptions to override critical inquests to history and culture.


[1] H.S. Versnel, Faith, Hope, and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World, (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pg. 6.

[2] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg. 2.

[3] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg 2. In this, Versnel points to J.M Bremmer’s paper focusing solely on the pars epica and the argumentative aspects of that position in prayer. Versnel avoids speaking to the pars epcia due to the combination of this aspect of prayer and the invocatio being closer to a hymnal or religious poetry and unsuited to his dissertation. Bremer’s work articulates that the pars epica is better suited to an intermediary position, and is readily replaced with other terms (‘argument’ by JM Bremmer himself, or sanctio by Zelinksi). As this work deals with prayers, not necessarily ‘hymns’, we shall keep to Ausfeld’s particular definition.

It should be noted in the second item in the list, the pars epica, that “benevolent” does not necessarily constitute the orientation of the God vis-à-vis their mortal supplicants as a wholly “good” or beneficial deity. A deity which intercedes in the doings of a mortal, for the benefit of that mortal, is thus acting in a benevolent capacity. This holds even if their benevolence manifests as benign neglect or condescension.

[4] J.M. Bremer, “Greek Hymns”, in Faith, Hope, and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pg. 194

[5] Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Homeric Hymns, (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2004), pg. 53

[6] On certain online fora, it has become trendy to argue that Heathens go “first to their ancestors, then the wights, then the gods” or that the “gods only care about the group, and not the individual”. Prayer formulas from other related Indo-European religions would position this attitude as an incorrect one.

[7] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg. 15.

[8] Calvert Watkins, How to Kill A Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford University Press, 1995), pg. 69.

[9] Watkins, Dragon, pg. 246.

[10] Watkins, Dragon, pg. 250.

[11] Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003), pg. 173.

[12] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, Scandinavian Studies, 60:2 (Spring, 1998): 119. It is important to note that earlier scholars, such as H.M Chadwick in the 1930s and 1940s, had already made this association between these extant texts and Homeric hymnals in the tradition of the Heisod.

[13] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, from Finnur Jonsson, Skjaldedigtning, B1:166, pg. 121
Translation from Gabriel Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, (Holt, Reinhart, & Winston: New York, 1964) pg 85.

[14] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg 133.

[15] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 134.

[16] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 131. Vetrliði is known in a number of sources: Landnamabok, Heimskringla, Kristni saga, Njals Saga, and the Longest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. His raising of a nið is probably what the man is best known for in history.

[17] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 131.

[18] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 135


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