Heathen Prayer: The Art of Speaking Runes

What do you think of when you think of the word, ‘prayer’? Perhaps you envisage a person piously kneeling in church, or even rocking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Maybe you even think of the Muslim with a prayer mat, or the Sufi worshippers swirling in their billowing robes?

But what about Pagans and Heathens? Do we pray? Should we pray? And how should that prayer ‘look’ in comparison to the prayer of other religions?

A while ago, I posed the question of prayer on a group that I frequent – it’s a lovely group, very calm, and a lot of the members find it supportive. A lot of the respondents said that they did indeed pray, and then we went on to have a wonderful conversation about prayer. However, there were a few that expressed views that they don’t pray so much as just ‘talk to the gods, ancestors, and wights’. This isn’t unusual either. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the prayer question come up in both Heathen and Pagan circles over and over again, and the ‘I don’t pray, but talk to the gods’ response is one that I’ve seen come up a lot.

But what is prayer, and what was it for Heathens?

Many of the sources we have for the Heathen period were written by Christians, in some cases centuries after conversion. With this in mind, when we examine these sources, we have to treat them with some degree of caution and bear in mind that we’re reading these events as presented through the filter of a Christian worldview.

The ‘Heliand’ however, is pretty unique in that it’s the Christian gospel written in a way that the Heathen Saxons could understand it. In other words, it’s the story of Jesus adapted to the Heathen worldview. Through comparing the rendering the ‘Heliand’ gives, with the actual Christian gospel, I believe it’s possible to discern aspects of the Heathen worldview.

When it comes to prayer, and the way it is introduced in the ‘Heliand’, the difference between the Christian version and the version as rendered for Heathens is obvious.

In Luke 11:1, the introduction to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is short, and with the expectation that the reader will already understand what is going on:

“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

In contrast though, the ‘Heliand’ presents prayer very differently:

“Our good Lord”, he said, “we need Your gracious help in order to carry out Your will and we also need Your own words, Best of all born, to teach us, Your followers, how to pray – just as John the good Baptist, teaches his people with words every day how they are to speak to the ruling God. Do this for Your own followers – teach us the secret runes.”

– Song 9

Runes are prayers? Next you're going to tell me these aren't runes anymore!

Runes are prayers? Next you’re going to tell me these aren’t runes anymore!

With those words, ‘teach us the secret runes’, or ‘gerihti us that geruni’, the normally ineffectual wish-prayer of the pious, is made understandable within the context of Germanic culture as a kind of spell of great performative power; the word ‘geruni’ conveying both the ideas of secrecy and petitioning.

From the importance of skalds and their craft ( that often bordered on the magical) to the belief that certain combinations of words could have a magical effect, the idea of the power of language, is something that permeated Germanic culture. In the Old English medical texts, certain prayers such as the ‘Pater Noster’ (the Latin name of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) are considered to heal when said a certain number of times, and texts like ‘Solomon and Saturn’ often advocate the same prayers as war-spells for in battle.

But none of this really sounds like the Judeo-Christian idea of what a prayer is. The word ‘prayer’ itself derives from the Latin word ‘precari’, and has the Proto Indo-European root ‘*prek’, meaning ‘to ask, request, or en

treat’. In a sense, the asking and entreating does form a part of these formulaic ‘rune-prayers’ from Germanic tradition:

‘Give us support each day, good Chieftain,
Your holy help, and pardon us, Protector of Heaven
Our Many crimes, just as we do to other human beings
Do not let evil little creatures lead us off
to do their will, as we deserve’

– Excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Heliand, Song 19

But there is never really a sense with Christian prayer that the prayer itself is a kind of magical formula, or a ‘rune’ to be used as a form of magic in of itself. Christian prayer hinges on the entreaty, on the benevolence of the being you’re entreating. However, not only did Germanic prayer make that entreaty to the higher, as a subject might go to a King, it was also powerful in of itself. In other words, the formula and language used were important.

So while the word ‘prayer’ might not hold up within a Germanic context, at least not in the same sense as prayer in other religious traditions, a sense of respect, formality, of formula, and tradition does.

For health, for protection, for battle-victory, and for support – these were all reasons to make these entreaties and use these inherently magical formulae, these were the reasons that made sense to the Germanic tribes. There was no asking for ‘our daily bread’, which would have rendered the asker little more than a beggar, and asking for forgiveness is replaced by the more judicial ‘pardon’ from crimes.

So where does that leave us as moderns? Do we still call it ‘prayer’? How often should we do it? And if we bear in mind that a prayer was believed to hold an inherent magic based in the words used, how would this affect the prayers we come up with?

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how often they pray or…I dunno… speak runes? However one thing is clear to me; the formal and formulaic is not the sole domain of Christians, and when coming up with our prayers or ‘runes’, we should take as much care as possible, and never forget that we are addressing the Holy Powers.

Sources:

The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel – Translation and Commentary by G.Ronald Murphy. S.J.
The Lacnunga
Solomon and Saturn
The Holy Bible NIV