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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 18

Greek Prayers


    Greek prayers are usually very pragmatic. "Who," asks Cicero, who can speak for both Greeks and Romans in this particular, "ever thanked the gods that he was a good man? Men are thankful for riches, honor, safety.... We beg of the sovran God [only] what makes us safe, sound, rich and prosperous."[30] Phormion is simply a very average, healthy, handsome young Athenian. While he prays he stretches his hands on high, as is fitting to a deity of Olympus.[31] His petition runs much as follows:

"Athena, Queen of the Ægis, by whatever name thou lovest best,[32] give ear.

"Inasmuch as thou dids't heed my vow, and grant me fair glory at Mantinea, bear witness I have been not ungrateful. I have offered to thee a white sheep, spotless and undefiled. And now I have it in my mind to attempt the pentathlon at the next Isthmia at Corinth. Grant me victory even in that; and not one sheep but five, all as good as this to-day, shall smoke upon thine altar. Grant also unto me, my kinsmen and all my friends, health, riches and fair renown."

    A pagan prayer surely; and there is a still more pagan epilogue. Phormion has an enemy, who is not forgotten.

"And oh! gracious, sovran Athena, blast my enemy Xenon, who strove to trip me foully in the foot race. May his wife be childless or bear him only monsters; may his whole house perish; may all his wealth take flight; may his friends forsake him; may war soon cut him off, or may he die amid impoverished, dishonored old age. If this my sacrifice has found favor in thy sight, may all these evils come upon him unceasingly. And so will I adore thee and sacrifice unto thee all my life."[33]

    The curse then is a most proper part of a Greek prayer! Phormion is not conscious of blasphemy. He merely follows invariable custom.

    It is useless to expect "Christian sentiments" in the fourth century B.C., yet perhaps an age should be judged not by its average, but by its best. Athenians can utter nobler prayers than those of the type of Phormion. Xenophon makes his model young householder Ishomenus pray nobly "that I may enjoy health and strength of body, the respect of my fellow citizens, honorable safety in times of war, and wealth honestly increased."[34]

    There is a simple little prayer also which seems to be a favorite with the farmers. Its honest directness carries its own message.

"Rain, rain, dear Zeus, upon the fields of the Athenians and the plains."[35]

    Higher still ascends the prayer of Socrates, when he begs for "the good" merely, leaving it to the wise gods to determine what "the good" for him may be; and in one prayer, which Plato puts in Socrates's mouth, almost all the best of Greek ideals and morality seems uttered. It is spoken not on the Acropolis, but beside the Ilissus at the close of the delightful walk and chat related in the "Phaedrus."

"Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me the beauty of the inward soul, and may the outward and the inward man be joined in perfect harmony. May I reckon the wise to be wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as none but the temperate can carry. Anything more?—That prayer, I think, is enough for me."

    Phormion and his party are descending to the city to spend the evening in honest mirth and feasting, but we are fain to linger, watching the slow course of the shadows as they stretch across the Attic hills. Sea, sky, plain, mountains, and city are all before us, but we will not spend words upon them now. Only for the buildings, wrought by Pericles and his might peers, we will speak out our admiration. We will gladly confirm the words Plutarch shall some day say of them, "Unimpaired by time, their appearance retains the fragrance of freshness, as though they had been inspired by an eternally blooming life and a never aging soul."[36]


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