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Prayer Formularies For Public Recitation. Their Use and Function in Ancient Religion

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In order to understand the religious mentality of ancient prayer, this article investigates the mode of public praying with respect to the use of fixed formularies, for which the most relevant references from Hellenistic and Roman antiquity are collected and presented. In spite of the different religious traditions, a surprisingly homogenous picture emerges: Public prayers had to be recited in accordance to formularies whose wording was prescribed and not at will of the praying persons. The correct recitation of a formulary (and even its proper pronunciation) was meant to guarantee the prayer's appropriateness and efficacy: an improperly recited prayer was considered to be either ineffective or even dangerous. This concept accounts for several closely related aspects which can be identified in all religious traditions: (1) Usually, the particular wording of a prayer is traced back to some divine origin which afforded its efficacy; knowledge of a prayer is, therefore, the result of revelation or of divine inspiration. (2) Correspondingly, the recitation of such formularies requires some spiritual quality of the praying person (righteousness, purity, priesthood, spiritual "ability" etc.). (3) Restriction of access to prayer formularies for certain people only is expressed by the prohibition to divulge the formulary, and by the exclusion of those considered unworthy.

This picture encompasses the different religious traditions (accounting even for the "magic" prayers in the Greek magical papyri): an essential, phenomenological difference between pagan and Jewish-Christian praying cannot be substantiated. Furthermore, the concept relates to the most different hymnic genres and, therefore, can serve as the basis for a cultural comparison of ancient hymnody and for reconstructing the religious mentality of prayer.


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