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A PAGAN RITUAL PRAYER BOOK
By Ceisiwr Serith
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2011 Ceisiwr Serith
All rights reserved.
Prayer is communication with some form of the sacred, most often seen as a person or persons. It is a form of speech and, like speech in general, can be divided into marked and unmarked. Unmarked speech is informal. It can be called "conversational," since it is the style we use in conversation. It's a prose style, friendly, using everyday words in everyday arrangement: nothing fancy here. In prayer this style is most appropriate for deities with whom you are on very good terms, and for those who are close to people in general and therefore likely to be friendly to us—for instance hearth goddesses, homey deities who live with us and with whom we interact daily. Prayers to other kinds of beings can be in this style as well; ancestors, who were people like us, may enjoy it, as long as it is respectful. High gods like Zeus, on the other hand, may not appreciate being treated on chummy terms.
Conversational prayers are almost nonexistent among the prayers we have from ancient times. Although this may be due to the vagaries of survival, it may be because these less formal prayers express a theology that sees little distinction between the deities and humans—a belief not common in those times.
For other sorts of prayers, marked speech is most common. Marked speech is simply any form that is out of the ordinary. At one end of this spectrum is elevated prose like "newscasters' speech," in which grammatical niceties are observed, and words more common in written than spoken speech are used. The interest here is clarity and precision rather than decoration. The more formal types of elevated prose include technical terms; a good example is legal speech. Elevated prose may include sentences that have become ritualized: "I now pronounce you husband and wife." It may contain archaic terms like "thou," or words that still exist but are used with archaic meanings, such as "suffer" for "allow." These words are used not just for their basic meanings, but also for their psychological and social implications. Fancy words are seen as expressing fancy thought.
In elevated prose, grammatical rules for word order may be played with—for instance, "For this I pray" rather than "I pray for this." The style may be magisterial, conveying, without actually stating, that the occasion is an important one. Here we see the beginnings of poetry, in which the way something is expressed is as important as its literal meaning.
Elevated prose is often used in speeches. A classic example is the Gettysburg Address, which uses archaic and unusual terms: "four score and seven" is certainly not the common way to express "eighty-seven"; "brought forth" is not likely to be found in everyday speech, and "conceived," at least in the sense that Lincoln used it, is equally uncommon.
These words are carefully chosen and arranged. There is, for instance, a parallelism in the structure of the speech. Something that is "brought forth" is something that has been "conceived." There is the metaphor of the emergence of a country as that of a child. There is connecting structure between sections of the speech: "dedicate" and "consecrate" are repeated, and "who struggle here" is paired with "who fought here." This is not casual speech; it has been carefully crafted to draw listeners in and to make a logical argument. It is beautiful, but its beauty is in service to its purpose.
This sort of speech requires a lot of practice and skill, careful planning and editing, or both. In the case of the Gettysburg Address, it was both; Lincoln had developed his speaking skill in years of legal argument and debate, and, despite the legend, the Address was not dashed off on the back of an envelope on the way to Gettysburg, but went through several drafts. (A wonderful history and for our purposes a very relevant account of this is found in Wills, 1993, 148–175.) I think this would be too much to expect when writing a prayer, at least at first, but it's a good goal.
A very formal type of speech is found in the King James Bible. Contrary to what many think, the language of this translation is not the English spoken at the time of King James. It is consciously archaic, looking back toward Elizabethan England, but formalized to create a language that no one had ever actually spoken. Even at the time of the translation, it was marked. Moreover, the text was designed to be spoken rather than read, so careful attention was paid to flow, ease of pronunciation, and meter (Nicolson, 2003). The end result comes very close to poetry.
And it is poetry that is the most marked form of speech, and it was the most common form for prayers in ancient times. Even many prayers that seem at first to be prose have been shown to be structured like poetry (Watkins, 1995). It's therefore useful to have a good knowledge of how poetry works when you are writing prayers.
It is difficult to define poetry, and the line between it and elevated prose is not always easy to draw. The definition in Wikpedia is "a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning." This could be applied to some other forms of elevated prose as well. There are some differences, however; in poetry this definition is more intensely applied. In particular, poetry pays careful attention to beauty; it is decorative. This decoration, however, carries part of the meaning.
Although in recent years the rules governing the type of compositions considered to be poetry have loosened, there are traditional poetic formats. These may limit the number of lines, the meter, and the rhyme scheme. We all know about sonnets and haikus, for instance.
The grossest level of a poem is its overall structure. Is there one verse or more? If there are more than one, are they separated by a chorus? A verse/chorus structure is possible whether a prayer is sung or spoken. In either case it works well in groups, where a main celebrant may sing or say the verse, and everyone joins in on the chorus.
When composing a poem or prayer, you need to decide how many lines you want. If you are using a set format like a sonnet, this may be decided for you. (An English sonnet, for instance, has fourteen lines.) You also need to consider syllable count. Each line can consist of a set number of syllables. (In English sonnets, each line has ten.) Lines may have differing numbers of syllables, however, even in some set formats. The most familiar pattern of this is probably that of the haiku, with three lines in a syllable count of 5-7-5. I am very fond of this form, since it leads to short prayers that are still tightly constructed.
Haikus traditionally present a stripped-down description of nature that is then related to an emotional state or the transcendent, making them very suitable for Pagan prayers. A haiku prayer can end in a call to or praise of a divine being:
* Winter snow lies thick on the frozen ground beneath: Hail, Winter Spirits!
The structure can be modified to suit your purpose. For instance, sometimes I use an extended haiku format. Instead of three lines, 5-7-5, I may use 5-7-5-5 or 5-7-5-7:
* Winter snow lies thick on the frozen ground beneath: Hail, Winter Spirits! Hail all of you here!
Or I may extend the number of syllables in the last line—5-7-6—or truncate the last line—5-7-4—or combine extended line length and truncated syllable count—57-5-4—or the reverse:
* Winter snow lies thick on the frozen ground beneath: Hail, Winter Spirits! Hail in the cold!
A final line with an unexpected number of syllables gives a strong feeling of completion; it sticks out as important. It is marked. The suddenness of the shorter line, for instance, makes the prayer feel complete, concrete. A longer line, on the other hand, may make you feel as if a new line has started but been left unfinished; the connection with the sacred is open. The first is good for a petitionary prayer, and the second is good for a calling or prayer of praise. Try them out and see what emotional response each evokes in you.
Other syllable counts can convey other feelings. Lines of the same length can create peace and contentment:
* Winter snow lies thick covering the ground. Hail, Winter Spirits!
Lengthening or shortening the last line in non-haiku poems—5-5-6 or 6-6-5—can have an effect similar to their effect in haikus:
* Winter snow lies thick covering the ground. Hail, bright Winter Spirits!
Play around with syllable counts, and they may become the unifying principle of your prayer style.
Meter and Rhyme
The next level down from syllable count is meter. This is the pattern of long and short syllables, or of accented and unaccented syllables, or of open and closed syllables. These overlap somewhat, with a closed syllable being longer than an open one, and long syllables tending to be accented. (An open syllable is a vowel or one ending with a vowel (V, CV), whereas a closed syllable ends in a consonant (VC, CVC).)
Meter is what drives a poetic line. Does it rush on, or take its time? Does it come smoothly to a stop, or end with a crash?
Meter is a skeleton on which to hang words, which means that the composer is creating order from chaos. This was an important part of ancient religion, so doing it within a prayer makes that prayer into a reflection of one of the goals of religion itself. By composing or speaking structured speech you become a creator of a well-ordered cosmos.
Meter also gives beauty to a prayer. This is in large part due to the response we have to good structure. It may also come from our strong connection to rhythm.
There are a variety of meters, each with a different feel. The famous iambic pentameter, in which each line has five groups of unstressed/stressed combinations of syllables, is a natural meter for English, and is therefore the easiest for us to write and the easiest on our ears. "We wish that you might come to us today." More exotic meters can make a prayer more marked, but also more difficult to write well, with the danger of the language being a bit stilted. For instance, the trochee, which is made up of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one (the reverse of iambic), may have been the meter followed by the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala, but it is also that of "Hiawatha," making it hard for those raised on Longfellow to take seriously.
Repetition within a prayer is similar to meter, giving it a structure around which the rest of the prayer turns. Some parts can be repeated and others not, as in a song with verses and choruses. This gives a combination of order and change that may well express the nature of a deity or aspects of the divine reality in which they operate.
Moreover, each time the repeated part is said, it drives itself deeper into our consciousness, each time modified by the nonrepeated part. These modifying words or phrases in a sense fall into the hole dug by the repetition of the other parts. The truth of the repetition is thus manifested in different ways, increasing your understanding of it.
One kind of prayer that uses repetition is a litany, which consists of a call and response. A main celebrant says one thing; this is answered by the others; the main celebrant says something else; the others answer, and so on. The others can repeat what the celebrant has said, or they can say something different, which is then repeated each time they respond:
* Celebrant: We pray to the one who knows the runes.
All: Odin is he, Odin is wise.
Celebrant: We pray to the one who hears memory's tales.
All: Odin is he, Odin is wise.
Celebrant: We pray to the one who rescued the mead.
All: Odin is he, Odin is wise.
A variation on this is the question-and-answer format:
* Celebrant: Who is the one who gives birth to the world?
All: The Goddess is she, the mother of all.
Celebrant: Who is the one who comforts the ailing?
All: The Goddess is she, the mother of all.
Celebrant: Who is the one who shines in the nighttime?
All: The Goddess is she, the mother of all.
Finally, we come to word choice. All of the considerations of elevated prose apply here—archaisms, alliterations, and so on. These are more important in poetry than in prose. "Thou" sounds silly outside of the most elevated prose, but can fit in well with certain types of poems.
Word choice can follow a pattern. The best-known is rhyme. This is very common in modern poetry—so much so that many incorrectly see it as poetry's defining characteristic. Rhyme was rare in the ancient world, however. A big reason for this is that many ancient languages are highly inflected. This means that the endings of words changed with their use. For instance, the usual Latin ending for a first-person plural verb (the "we" form) was -mus. This makes rhyming so easy and boring that there isn't much point in it. In a sense, the endings don't really rhyme, but rather are identical. It is harder to rhyme in modern English, so English rhymes can be both more subtle and more complex, and therefore more marked and more beautiful.
Rhyme schemes are as varied as meters. The easiest rhyme to construct is couplets—two lines that end in the same sound. These couplets are then "stacked" to make a poem in the form "aabbcc", etc.:
* Demeter, blesser of women and men, as was done of old we call you again, Holy Queen and Mother of Earth bring life, and bring laughter, and birth.
Couplets can become boring in a long prayer, but you can use that to lull the consciousness into an altered state. Couplets can also be used to good effect in litanies, with the response changing each time, but rhyming with the call.
More complicated, but more common, is an "abab" structure, in which the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, and so on:
* Demeter, blesser of women and men, Queen and Mother of Earth, as was done of old we call you again, bring life, and bring laughter, and birth.
More complicated schemes exist. For instance, in addition to end rhymes, in which the last syllable of each line rhymes with the last syllable of other lines, there are internal rhymes, where words inside of each line rhyme with those inside of others. One of the prayers in this book contains both end and internal rhymes:
* With rain, he brings us the greening, with grain, he brightens our days, with might he drives away falseness, with right he opens our ways.
Note that I have combined couplets formed by the internal lines with an "abcb" pattern formed by the end rhymes. This sort of poetry is hard to write, which is one reason why out of the hundreds of prayers in this book there is only one like it.
Shakespeare often used rhymes in an interesting way by ending unrhymed soliloquies with the rhymed words. After a number of unrhymed lines, there is a couplet. Take, for instance, Henry IV, Part I, Act I, scene 2, where, after twenty unrhymed lines, we find:
I'll so offend as to make offense a skill
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
One prayer in this book ends in this way:
* Know this, then: averting my eyes I still praise; I honor with words, though not perhaps my gaze.
Using a couplet in this way can provide a clear ending to a prayer, without having to carry a rhyme scheme through the whole prayer. It can be especially useful in groups, where the couplet can be a good cue that the prayer is over.
Rhyme has the same advantages as meter. It provides structure, beauty, and ease of memorization. It also has the disadvantage of being more difficult to do well. There are many truly bad rhymed prayers out there. The most common danger is to use clichéd rhymes—the moon-Junespoon problem. In other instances, the words don't rhyme exactly: for example, "mine" and "time." An unrhymed prayer is better than a poorly rhymed one.
Another type of word choice is alliteration, which occurs when two words begin with the same sound: "bright and beautiful," "great and glorious," "dewy dawn." Note that it is the sounds, not the spellings, that create the alliteration: "carefully" alliterates with "kill," not "celebrate." In some systems, all vowels alliterate, so that "easy" doesn't alliterate just with "easel," but with "aisle."
Alliteration is the basis of Germanic poetry, which is made up of lines that are divided in half by a slight pause:
* Holy in heaven, we hail you, Tyr.
In each half there are two accented syllables, or "lifts." The main lift of the line is the first accented syllable in the second half. One or both of the lifts in the first half of the line must alliterate with it, but the second lift in the second half must not. There is more to Germanic poetic rules (see Tolkien, 2009, 45–50), but this will do for now. I bring this up here because it is a very appropriate style for prayers to Germanic deities, and because it is a natural and powerful style for English.
Synonyms help with word choice. One of the glories of English is its large vocabulary, and this can be used to great advantage in prayer. Synonyms can be useful if you want a word of a particular meter, or are looking for a rhyme, or for a word to alliterate. They rarely have exactly the same meaning, however. Their meanings can overlap in some ways and diverge in others. "Cease" implies a complete ending; "halt" is abrupt (Hayakawa, 1968, 593).
Even if the meanings of synonyms are the same, they often differ in level of formality. English has many synonyms in which one word is Germanic in origin—simple, friendly, everyday—and one is from Latin, French, or Greek—longer, formal, marked. Compare "ask" and "request." Even Germanic words can differ in level of formality; "ask" is a very different word from "beseech."
Excerpted from A PAGAN RITUAL PRAYER BOOK by Ceisiwr Serith. Copyright © 2011 Ceisiwr Serith. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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