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How to Compose a Good Prayer
in English or Old English

By Swain Wodening

 

One of the most understated ritual forms in modern Heathenry is the bede or prayer. Yet no other ritual can be performed almost anywhere. Whether it be atop some river bluff, in ritual space, or on a Greyhound bus headed east, a bede to the gods or forbears can be said. Yet modern Heathens often do not seem to take the time, or exert the energy to compose ready made prayers that can be used in blot or when the need arises. From experience I know this is only because most do not even know how to begin writing a bede. Prayer composition is not difficult. By examining the lore, looking at surviving bedes in the Eddas, and at the Anglo-Saxon galdors, one can reliably reconstruct what the outline of a good Heathen prayer should look like.

The Outline

What few surviving prayers we have on hand reveal a definite structure. There is no way of knowing whether all ancient bedes followed this structure or only the ones that have survived. Never the less, a working outline for composing prayers can be formulated from several of the surviving bedes. A section of the Anglo-Saxon Æcer-bót reveals a definite structure.

 
Wes ßú Hál, folde---fira módor;
(wassail Earth---Mankind's mother)
béo ßú growende---in godes fðme,
(be thou growing---in god's embrace)
fódor gefylled---firum tó nytte.
(With food filled---for men to use)
beorht blówende---ßú gebletsod weorß.
(bright blossoming---thou blessed worth)
Þæs hálgan name---ße ßás heofon gescóp,
(In that holy name---that the heaven shaped)
ond ßás eorðan---ße wé on lífiaß,
(and that of the earth---that we live in)
sé god---sé ßás grundas geworhte,
(that god---that the grounds wrought)
geunne ús---growende giefe
(grant us---growing yield)
ßæt ús corna gehwilc---cume tó nytte.
(that every kind of corn to us---comes to use)


This prayer opens with a greeting to the goddess Earth, and with the second line begins semi-mythical references to the marriage of Fréa and Gerðr, the union between Wóden and Eorðe that produced Þunor, or a similar union of some kind. It ends by petitioning for good harvests of every kind of crop.

Another surviving bede found in the Sigdrífumál from the Elder Edda reveals a similar structure:


«Heill dagr,
heilir dags synir,
heil nott oc nipt!
oreißom a/gom
litiß ocr ßinig
oc gefit sitiondom sigr!

Heilir esir,
heilar asynior,
heil sia in fiolnyta fold!
mal oc manvit
gefit ocr merom tveim
oc lecnishendr, meßan lifom!»

Hail Day, Hail, Sons of Day!
Hail Night and New Moon!
With kind eyes look hither and grant us
Victory while we live.

Hail Gods! Hail Goddesses!
Hail bountiful Earth!
Grace us both with the gift of speech
And leech hands while we live.


 


(W H Auden & P B Taylor Translation.)
The prayer begins by hailing Dagr, his sons, Nótt and Mani. It then asks that they grant victory. Finally the prayer hails the gods and goddesses and asks for the gift of speech and healing hands.

Both prayers follow the same general pattern. The Æcer-bót passage as part of a larger rite includes mythological references, along with further petitioning. The Sigdrífumál bede on the other hand lacks mythological references, but still hails the gods and makes a request. Both have the same basic structure, although one is a quick prayer that is meant to stand alone, the other a more elaborate part of a larger rite.

Another simple prayer that seems to follow the same pattern is one recorded by Ibn Fadlan done by one of the Rus.

"Oh my lord, I have come far with many slave-girls and many sables .... Now With these offerings I come to you... Send me a merchant with lots of gold and willing to buy on my terms." (Dunn translation)

This prayer follows close to the pattern. The Rus merchant greets his god, he then proceeds to list what he is about to give his god, and finally petitions for a merchant willing to buy at his price. This prayer differs in that the merchant does not mention any mythological references, but instead lists what he is offering the god in return for his request.

Finally, a portion of a prayer to Thor survived in Snorri's Skáldskaparmál. All that remains are the mythological references. However, these are enough to let us know such references were made.
 


You smashed the limbs of Leikn,
you bashed Þrivaldi;
you knocked down Starkaðr;
you trod Gjalp dead under foot.


Drawing on the bedes and fragments of bedes above, one can reconstruct am outline for prayers as such:

1) A greeting to the god or gods.
2) A boast of the god or gods' great deeds, or other mythological references. In addition, the deities were invoked through various hight names and by names as in the Æcer-bót.
3) A petition or request. This was most likely simple, in Víga-Glúms saga Þórkell with the gift of an ox, simply asked that the man who expelled him from his lands be done likewise. The prayer was simple and effective as the ox fell over dead, and the man was expelled.

Variations of this outline can be used. The Sigdrífumál in fact merges two prayers into one, while the Rus prayer recounted by Ibn Fadlan contains no mythological references, but instead states what the Rus merchant is offering in sacrifice. Armed with this outline, one can then begin to tackle the fairly easy task of prayer composition.

Composition in English and Old English

Before writing in Old English, you will want to obtain a good grammar and dictionary. Any number of grammars will do, but make sure you get one that teaches early Old West Saxon and not Late West Saxon. There are subtle vowel differences which will make composing difficult with Late West Saxon. As for dictionaries I recommend you get Clark Halls' which is the best affordable dictionary out. Finally, Stephen Pollington's Wordcraft which is available from Theod Magazine or Anglo-Saxon books (both have websites) is an invaluable English to Old English dictionary and thesaurus. For composition in English, a good thesaurus often comes in handy for keeping to alliterative verse. Wordlists of terms specific to our religion are also handy as are a list of kennings and hight names of the gods.

As to verse and metre, modern Heathenry like its ancient counterpart has enjoyed the use of alliterative verse or stave rhyme. In alliterative poetry the stress or emphasis falls on words that begin with the same consonant or sometimes vowel. The number of stressed and unstressed syllables of a line of poetry is kept track of by the poetic metre or rhythm. Metre measures the number of stressed and unstressed syllables, as well as when and where they appear. Old Lore Metre was the most common ancient metre. It is best known from Beowulf, and consists of two half- lines linked by words that alliterate in each half- line. Each half-line consists of at least two stressed syllables and a variable number of unstressed syllables. The last stressed syllable of the last half-line may not alliterate, in Old Lore Metre or any other.

Composing in Old Lore Metre is not difficult using modern English. An example is a translation of the first line of the rune-verse Daeg (Dagaz) of the Anglo- Saxon Rune Poem. Stressed syllables are marked by bold type, while the alliterating consonants are underlined.

Day is the drighten's herald dear to man.

As can be seen by the above line, Old Lore metre is not difficult to use. Other metres, such as the Eddic ljóðaháttr ("song- metre"), are much harder to work with. Ljóðaháttr alternates between two half- lines and one full line, with stanzas of four half-lines and two full lines. The half-lines are like those of Old Lore metre, while the full lines must have three stresses, of which two alliterate. Hávamál, for the most part, is written in ljóðaháttr, thus:
 


"A ring-oath I know Óðinn has sworn,
how shall his troth be trusted?
He swindled Suttungr took symbel from him,
and Gunnlöð was left to greet ('weep')".


Similar to ljóðaháttr was galdralag (enchantment-order), it follows the pattern of ljóðaháttr, except that it repeats one of the full lines (sometimes with minor variations) at the end of a stanza. There are also several skaldic metres but these for the most part are difficult to use in modern English and not easily used in Old English.

If one is wishing to learn to compose in Old English, some practical advice to follow is make your first attempts in English and then translate them to Old English. This helps one build a vocabulary, and to learn the grammar involved. Avoid pronouns as they were not often used in Old English poetry and try to stick to words of Anglo-Saxon descent. This makes translating easier. It is best to worry less about the metre in the beginning, and more about simply getting the alliteration down pat. The metre only comes with time and practice, first one must build a vocabulary, and learn grammatical structure.

Finally, read alliterative poetry in modern English, and if possible many of the ancient poems. This sets in ones mind the patterns used in composition.

Composing a Prayer

Once one has settled on an outline and studied the formats of the ancient poetry, one can easily set down and compose a prayer. A prayer is a highly personal thing, and while you may have made many objective observations in learning how to compose a bede in authentic Heathen fashion, you will not want to apply this method to the actual words you want to say. That is the words must come from your heart. Repeating by rote parts of the Eddas or other ancient works, while not a bad thing, is not nearly as moving as words that spring from your own soul, your own relationship with the Gods.

For those that do not write or are not poets, this can be difficult. We are not accustomed today to getting in touch with deep spiritual feelings. You may find that when you try to compose a prayer the words just will not come, or sound trite. Do not worry, the words for your bede will come to you... sometimes at an odd or inconvenient time. I have had inspiration hit me on buses, driving the car, on walks in the woods, and even at work. Once you are inspired and begin composing a prayer use the same tools our spiritual forbears did. Kennings and hight names come in handy when you are unable to think of an alliterating line of your own, tales from the Eddas and the Icelandic sagas told in your own words can be used to fill in gaps, and finally the use of your own experiences with the Gods make prime prayer material.

If you find that the words for a prayer do not come to you, try meditating on what it is you want to say, perhaps even meditate on the rune Ansuz for inspiration, and if all else fails pray for a prayer. Soon you will be able to say what you wish to the Gods in a poetic fashion. Everyone can compose their own bedes given time. Only in this way, will perhaps the most effective, yet easiest rite in Ásatrú find its rightful place
 

-Swain Wodening