1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prayer

PRAYER (from Lat. precari, entreat; Ital. pregaria, Fr. prière), a term used generally for any humble petition, but more technically, in religion, for that mode of addressing a divine or sacred power in which there predominates the mood and intention of reverent entreaty.

Prayer and its Congeners.—Prayer in the latter sense is a characteristic feature of the higher religions, and we might even say that Christianity or Mahommedanism, ritually viewed, is in its inmost essence a service of prayer. At all stages of religious development, however, and more especially in the case of the more primitive types of cult, prayer as thus understood occurs together with, and shades off into, other varieties of observance that bear obvious marks of belonging to the same family.

Confining ourselves for the moment to forms of explicit address, we may group these under three categories according as the power addressed is conceived by the applicant to be on a higher, or on much the same, or on a lower plane of dignity and authority as compared with himself. (1) Only if the deity be regarded as altogether superior is there room for prayer proper, that is, reverent entreaty. Of this we may perhaps roughly distinguish a higher and a lower type, according as there is either complete confidence in the divine benevolence and justice, or a disposition to suppose a certain arbitrariness or at any rate conditionality to attach to the granting of requests. In the first case prayer will be accompanied with disinterested homage, praise and thank giving, and will in fact tend to lose its distinctive character of entreaty or petition, passing into a mystic communing or converse with God. In the second case it will be supported by pleading, involving on the one hand self-abasement, with confession of sins and promises of repentance and reform, or on the other hand self-justification, in the shape of the expression of faith and recitation of past services, together with reminders of previous favour shown. (2) If, however, the worshipper place his god on a level with himself, so far at any rate as to make him to some extent dependent on the service man contracts to render him, then genuine prayer tends to be replaced by a mere bargaining, often conjoined with flattery and with insincere promises. This spirit of do ut des will be found to go closely with the gift-theory of sacrifice, and to be especially characteristic of those religions of middle grade that are given over to sacrificial worship as conducted in temples and by means of organized priesthoods. Not but what, when the high gods are kind for a consideration, the lower deities will likewise be found addicted to such commerce; thus in India the hedge-priest and his familiar will bandy conditions in spirited dialogue audible to the multitude (cf. W. Crooke, Things Indian, s.v. “Demonology,” pp. 132, 134). (3) Lastly, the degree of dependency on human goodwill attributed to the power addressed may be so great that, instead of diplomatic politeness, there is positive hectoring, with dictation, threats and abuse. Even the Italian peasant is said occasionally to offer both abuse and physical violence to the image of a recalcitrant saint; and antiquity wondered at the bullying manner of the Egyptians towards their gods (cf. Iamblichus, De mysteriis, vi. 5-7). This frame of mind, however, is mainly symptomatic of the lower levels of cult. Thus the Zulu says to the ancestral ghost, “Help me or you will feed on nettles”; whilst the still more primitive Australian exclaims to the “dead hand” that he carries about with him as a kind of divining-rod, “Guide me aright, or I throw you to the dogs.”

So far we have dealt with forms of address explicitly directed towards a power that, one might naturally conclude, has personality, since it is apparently expected to hear and answer. At the primitive stage, however, the degree of personification is, probably, often far slighter than the words used would seem to suggest. The verbal employment of vocatives and of the second person may have little or no personifying force, serving primarily but to make the speaker's wish and idea intelligible to himself. When the rustic talks in the vernacular to his horse he is not much concerned to know whether he is heard and understood; still less when he mutters threats against an absent rival, or kicks the stool that has tripped him up with a vicious “Take that!”

These considerations may help towards the understanding of a second class of cases, namely forms of implicit address shading off into unaddressed formulas. Wishings, blessings, cursings, oaths, vows, exorcisms, and so on, are uttered aloud, doubtless partly that they may be heard by the human parties to the rite, but likewise in many cases that they may be heard, or at least overheard, by a consentient deity, perhaps represented visibly by an idol or other cult-object. The ease with which explicit invocations attach themselves to many of these apparently self-contained forms proves that there is not necessarily any perceived difference of kind, and that implicit address as towards a “something not-ourselves” is often the true designation of the latter. On the other hand, there is reason to believe that the magical spell proper is a self-contained and self-sufficient form of utterance, and that it lies at the root of much that has become address, and even prayer in the fullest sense.

From Spell to Prayer.—Of course to address and entreat a fellow-being is a faculty as old as that of speech, and, as soon as it occurred to man to treat sacred powers as fellow-beings, assuredly there was a beginning of prayer. We do not know, and are not likely to know, how religion first arose, and the probability is that many springs went to feed that immense river. Thus care for the dead may well have been one amongst such separate sources. It is natural for sorrow to cry to the newly dead “Come back!” and for bereavement to add “Come back and help!” Another source is mythologic fancy, which, in answer to childlike questions; “Who made the world?” “Who made our laws?” and so on, creates “magnified non-natural men,” who presently made their appearance in ritual (for to think a thing the savage must dance it); whereupon personal intercourse becomes possible between such a being and the tribesmen, the more so because the supporters of law and order, the elders, will wish to associate themselves as closely as possible with the supreme law-giver. From Australia, where we have the best chance of studying rudimentary religion in some bulk, comes a certain amount of evidence showing that in the two ways just mentioned some inchoate prayer is being evolved. On the other hand, it is remarkable how conspicuous, on the whole, is the absence of prayer from the magico-religious ritual of the Australians. Uttered formulas abound; yet they are not forms of address, but rather the self-sufficient pronouncements of the magician's fiat. Viewed analytically in its developed nature, magic is a wonder-working recognized as such, the core of the mystery consisting in the supposed transformation of suggested idea into accomplished fact by means of that suggestion itself. To the magician, endowed in the opinion of his fellows (and doubtless of himself) with this wonderful power of effective suggestion, the output of such power naturally represents itself as a kind of unconditional willing. When he cries “Rain, rain,” or otherwise makes vivid to himself and his bearers the idea of rain, expecting that the rain will thereby be forced to come, it is as if he had said “Rain, now you must come,” or simply “Rain, come!” and we find as a fact that magical formulas mostly assume the tone of an actual or virtual imperative, “As I do this, so let the like happen,” “I do this in order that the like may happen,” and so on. Now it is easy to “call spirits from the vasty deep,” but disappointed experience shows that they will not always come. Hence such imperatives have a tendency to dwindle into optatives. “Let the demon of small-pox depart!” is replaced by the more humble “Grandfather Smallpox, go away!” where the affectionate appellative (employed, however, in all likelihood merely to cajole) signalizes an approach to the genuine spirit of prayer. Again, the magician conscious of his limitations will seek to supplement his influence—his mana, as it is termed in the Pacific—by tapping, so to speak, whatever sources of similar power lie round about him; and these the “magomorphism” of primitive society perceives on every hand. A notable method of borrowing power from another magic-wielding agency is simply to breathe its name in connexion with the spell that stands in need of reinforcement; as the name suggests its owner, so it comes to stand for his real presence. It is noticeable that even the more highly developed forms of liturgical prayer tend, in the recitation of divine titles, attributes and the like, to present a survival of this magical use of potent names.

Prayer as a Part of Ritual.—An exactly converse process must now be glanced at, whereby, instead of growing out of it, prayer actually generates spell. In advanced religion, indeed, prayer is the chosen vehicle of the free spirit of worship. Its mechanism is not unduly rigid, and it is largely autonomous, being rid of subservience to other ritual factors. In more primitive ritual, however, set forms of prayer are the rule, and their function is mainly to accompany and support a ceremony the nerve of which consists in action rather than speech. Hence, suppose genuine prayer to have come into being, it is exceedingly apt to degenerate into a mere piece of formalism; and yet, whereas its intrinsic meaning is dulled by repetition according to a well-known pyschological law, its virtue is thereby hardly lessened for the undeveloped religious consciousness, which holds the saving grace to lie mainly in the repetition itself. But a formula that depends for its efficacy on being uttered rather than on being heard is virtually indistinguishable from the self-sufficient spell of the magician, though its origin is different. A good example of a degenerated prayer-ritual comes from the Todas (see W. H. R. Rivers, The Todas, ch. x.). The prayer itself tends to be slurred over, or even omitted. On the other hand, great stress is laid on a preliminary citation of names of power followed by the word idith. This at one time seems to have meant “for the sake of,” carrying with it some idea of supplication; but it has now lost this connotation, seeing that it can be used not merely after the name of a god, but after that of any sacred object or incident held capable of imparting magic efficacy to the formula. Even the higher religions have to fight against the tendency to “vain repetitions” (often embodying a certain sacred number, e.g. three), as well as to the use of prayers as amulets, medicinal charms, and so on. Thus, Buddhism offers the striking case of the praying-wheel. It remains to add that throughout we must carefully distinguish in theory, however hard this may be to do in practice, between legitimate ritual understood as such, whether integral to prayer, such as its verbal forms, or accessory, such as gestures, postures, incense, oil or what not, and the formalism of religious decay, such as generally betrays itself by its meaninglessness, by its gibberish phrases, sing-song intonation and so forth.

Silent Prayer.—A small point in the history of prayer, but one that has an interesting bearing on the subject of its relation to magic, is concerned with the custom of praying silently. Charms and words of power being supposed to possess efficacy in themselves are guarded with great secrecy by their owners, and hence, in so far as prayer verges on spell, there will be a disposition to mutter or otherwise conceal the sacred formula. Thus the prayers of the Todas already alluded to are in all cases uttered “in the throat,” although these are public prayers, each village having a form of its own. At a later stage, when the distinction between magic and religion is more clearly recognized and an anti-social character assigned to the former on the ground that it subserves the sinister interests of individuals, the overt and as it were congregational nature of the praying comes to be insisted on as a guarantee that no magic is being employed (cf. Apuleius, Apol. 54, “tacitas preces in templo dis allegasti: igitur magus es”), a notion that suffers easy translation into the view that there are more or less disreputable gods with whom private trafficking may be done on the sly (cf. Horace, Ep. I. xvi. 60, “labra movet metuens audiri, Pulchra Laverna, da mihi fallere”). Thus it is quite in accordance with the outlook of the classical period that Plato in his Laws (909-910) should prohibit all possession of private shrines or performance of private rites; “let a man go to a temple to pray, and let any one who pleases join with him in the prayer.” Nevertheless, instances are not wanting amongst the Greeks of private prayers of the loftiest and most disinterested tone (cf. L. R. Farnell, The Evolution of Religion, p. 202 seq.). Finally we may note in this connexion that in advanced religion, at the point at which prayer is coming to be conceived as communion, silent adoration is sometimes thought to bring man nearest to God.

The Moralization of Prayer.—When we come to consider the moral quality of the act of prayer, this contrast between the spirit of public and private religion is fundamental for all but the most advanced forms of cult. In its public rites the community becomes conscious of common ends and a common edification. We may observe how even a very primitive people such as the Arunta of Australia behaves with the greatest solemnity at its ceremonies, and professes to be made “glad” and “strong” thereby; whilst of his countrymen, whom he would not trust to pray in private, Plato testifies that in the temples during the sacrificial prayers “they show an intense earnestness and with eager interest talk to the Gods and beseech them” (Laws, 887). We may therefore assume that, in acts of public worship at any rate, prayer and its magico-religious conveners are at all stages resorted to as a “means of grace,” even though such grace do not constitute the expressed object of petition. Poverty of expression is apt to cloak the real spirit of primitive prayer, and the formula under which its aspirations may be summed up, namely, “Blessings come, evils go,” covers all sorts of confused notions about a grace to be acquired and an impurity to be wiped away, which, as far back as our clues take us, invite interpretations of a decidedly spiritualistic and ethical order. To explicate, however, and purge the meaning of that “strong heart” and “clean” which the savage after his fashion can wish and ask for, remained the task of the higher and more self-conscious types of religion. A favourite contrast for which there is more to be said is that drawn between the magico-religious spell-ritual, that says in effect, “My will be done,” and the spirit of “Thy will be done” that breathes through the highest forms of worship. Such resignation in the face of the divine will and providence is, however, not altogether beyond the horizon of primitive faith, as witness the following prayer of the Khonds of Orissa: “We are ignorant of what it is good to ask for. You know what is good for us. Give it to us.” (Tylor, Prim. Culture, 4. 369.) At this point prayer by a supreme paradox virtually extinguishes itself, since in becoming an end in itself, a means of contemplative devotion and of mystic communing with God, it ceases to have logical need for the petitionary form. Thus on the face of it there is something like a return to the self-sufficient utterance of antique religion; but, in reality, there is all the difference in the world between a suggestion directed outwardly in the fruitless attempt to conjure nature without first obeying her, and one directed towards the inner man so as to establish the peace of God within the heart.

Bibliography.—The following works deal generally with the subject of prayer from the comparative standpoint: E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, ch. 18 (1903); C. Tiele, Elements of the Science of Religion (Gifford lectures, lect. 6) (1897); F. Max Müller, “On Ancient Prayers,” in Semitic Studies in Memory of Rev. Dr Alexander Kokut (1897); L. R. Farnell, The Evolution of Religion, lect. 4 (1905). For special points the following may be consulted: Prayer in relation to magic: R. R. Marett, “From Spell to Prayer,” in Folk-Lore (June, 1904); W. W. Skeat, Malay Magic (1900). Degeneration of prayer: W. H. R. Rivers, The Todas, ch. 10 (1906). Use of the name of power: F. Giesebrecht, Die alttestamentliche Schätzung des Gottesnamens (1901); W. Heitmüller, Im Namen Jesu (1903). Silent prayer: S. Sudhaus, “Lautes und leises Beten” in Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 185 seq. (1906). Beginnings of Prayer in Australia: A. W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, 394, cf. 546 (1904); K. Langloh Parker, The Euahlayi Tribe, 79 seq. (1905); the evidence discussed in Man, 2, 42, 72 (1907). Prayer and spell in North American religion: W. Matthews, “The Prayer of a Navajo Shaman,” in American Anthropologist, i.; idem, “The Mountain Chant; a Navajo Ceremony,” in Fifth Report of Bureau of American Ethnology; J. Mooney, “The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees,” (7th Rept. 1891). Greek prayer: C. Ausfeld, De graecorum precationibus quaestiones (1903). Christian prayer: E. von der Goltz, Das Gebet in der altesten Christenheit (1901); id., Tischgebete und Abendmahlsgebete (1905); O. Dibelius, Das Vaterunser: Umrisse zu einer Geschichte des Gebets in der alten und mittleren Kirche (1903); T. K. Cheyne, article “Prayer,” in Ency. Bib. (1902).

(R. R. M.)