There seem to be a discussion going on amongst Pagans regarding the nature, use and purpose of prayers. On one side we have those who say that prayers are useless and on the other those who pray to the gods like Judeo-Christians (and Muslims) pray to their “god”. So let us shed some light on prayers…
Be it English, German, Dutch, Latin or Norse, the term for “pray” means simply “to ask for”. When you pray you ask your deity for something.
To find out more about prayers we need to go back in time, to the origins of prayers. Naturally, like with pretty much everything else adopted by the Abrahamists, prayers go back to the Stone Age, when our “savage” forebears roamed the forests of Europe. They discovered that when you take a seed and put it into the soil, a plant will grow from it. That is, if the right amount of sunlight and rain falls upon the spot where you put the seed into the ground. They kneeled down, with seeds in their (folded) hands, and sowed… when done, they looked to the sky, asking, hoping for sunlight or rain, or rather both, in the right amount.
They had collected these seeds for food, but by sacrificing them this way, they could give to nature so that nature could give to them, later on. They asked for Mother Nature to give. They prayed to the Earth goddess. They asked for the Sky to give. They prayed to the Sky god. Like the Romans described their relation to the deities: Do ut des (“I give in order that you may give”).
A prayer is called a “bøn(n)” in Scandinavia. The original meaning of the term is “speech”, but it also means “bean”. Yes. They put beans into the soil. They prayed that Mother Nature would give to them, because they had given her beans.
You don’t believe me? Well. Have you ever seen a “rosary”? “Prayer beads”? They are made up of a thread with… beans on them. The beans are used to count the number of prayers or chants or mantras of the religious person. So even today, beans are still used for prayers. In pretty much all religions.
The problem, I think, is not whether or not prayers were used, or whether or not they worked, but rather whether or not we understand what a prayer actually is, or indeed what Ancient Man meant by it in Classical Antiquity, when much about prayers was recorded.
The idea that “I give in order that you may give” is where our attention should be here. Making sacrifices and praying. Yes. They did it, and they did it because they understood that there need to be a balance in nature. You cannot take everything for yourself without consequence. In fact, you cannot take everything for yourself without dramatic consequences. If I come across a group of oak trees and I cut down the trees for firewood and take all the acorns for myself, then no new oak trees will grow there. I have to make a sacrifice: give back to nature something I have harvested, lest I will suffer. So I pray; I plant some of the acorns. I give (sacrifice) in order that Mother Nature may give. She cannot if I offer no prayers and make no such sacrifice.
They understood that you had to give to the gods in order for the gods to give something back to you. If you gave nothing, of you offered them no prayers or sacrifice, the gods would “punish” you.
To maintain a good relationship to the gods was incredibly important. For tens of thousands of years, they prayed to them and made sacrifices to them, as I have described above. When harvesting, they always left some for birds or other animals, and for the soil, as a sacrifice to the gods. When they hunted, they always left some of the meat, as a sacrifice to the gods. They gave so that the gods could give.
When mankind became civilized he gradually lost contact with nature and thus the gods. Prayers and making sacrifices became more illogical and abstract, where it before had been perfectly logical and concrete. Instead of actually planting seeds in the ground with folded hands, asking the gods for the seed to grow into a plant, they just kneeled down with folded hands, asking the gods for something else. Instead of holding the hands to the sky, asking the gods for sunshine or rainfall, they held their hands to the sky asking for something else. Prayers and making sacrifices lost their meaning.
They still believed that it was important to pray to the gods and to make sacrifices to them, to avoid their wrath. But of course, it had all lost its meaning and purpose.
And this is where we are today, with all these different religious people praying to their favourite god or gods, using rosaries without knowing why, kneeling down with folded hands without knowing why, addressing the sky without knowing why, etc.
The original tradition was about moderation and enabling a species, mankind, with great potential for destruction, to actually live in harmony with Mother Nature. Making sacrifices and praying (sowing) to ensure the continued growth of the plants he harvested or cut down – or sharing fish or meat with other animals, so that they would not starve because man had hunted too many of their prey.
Today prayer is basically just a means for useless or lazy people to have some fictional power they believe in to give them something they do not deserve to begin with. When they claim their god or gods answer their prayers, this has more to do with mental disease or simple dishonesty than anything else. Mother Earth does not “answer” your prayers that way. The Sky God does not “answer” your prayers that way. They answer in form of growth of the seeds you sow, or in form of sunlight and rainfall. All you could ever want.
As a Pagan I make sacrifices every day, and I pray almost every day. Not like some civilized clown with zero contact with the divine, but like my most ancient forebears. I give to the gods so that they may give to me. I sow seeds, I plant, I give a share of my food to birds and other animals. I help myself by helping the gods. I live as part of Mother Nature, instead of as one in constant conflict with her.
The gods help those who help themselves.