Calling the Gods: How Cult Practices Moved across Space and Time in the Ancient Mediterranean

Persistent identifier:

“The tongue is a bridge!” So exclaims the practitioner, probably an Old Woman, to the Sun-goddess of the Earth in the 15th century BCE Hittite Ritual against an Ominous Bee as she attempts to lure the goddess to the sacrificial offerings (CTH 447.A = KBo 11.10 iii 17). Her statement presents an early philosophy of language, as it were, in which the invisible medium of spoken words, when spoken in the right way by the right person, could bridge the distance between earth and heaven and exert coercive force on the invisible divine beings that controlled human reality, pulling them closer to listen to their complaints and carry out their wishes. This conception of language was a driving force in the movement of verbal art around the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Eastern Mediterranean. Divine personalities expected to be called in the way that they were accustomed, while humans were always eager to adopt the techniques of a rival performer when they seemed to be effective. What those techniques were, and which gods or divine personalities were considered to be particularly amenable to them is the subject of my book project, Calling the Gods: How Cult Practices Moved across Space and Time in the Ancient Mediterranean, which was supported by a month-long residential fellowship at CHS in September 2017.

The first goal of my project has been to establish some basic shared features that are sufficient to support the argument that a shared attitude towards divine-human relations, which is shown by parallels between Late Bronze Age Hittite and Archaic and Classical Greek coercive verbal art directed at gods, could provide a common framework within which compelling details or practices could be borrowed within the eastern Mediterranean. Over the course of my book in progress I explore against this background of shared features both borrowed practices and interesting and significant differences between Greek and Hittite practices and the various reasons for them. I also delve into the how, why, who, when, and where for the transmission and survival of the practices across space and time. This area of study is almost completely unexplored. And certainly, the comparative study of Greek and Near Eastern prayer has received much less attention than comparisons between hexametric narrative poetry and Near Eastern epic more generally and Hurro-Hittite narrative song in particular (see most recently Bachvarova 2016 on epic; Bachvarova 2006; 2007; 2009 on prayer). In the month I spent at CHS, I found myself focusing especially on how the agendas and presuppositions of earlier scholars have inhibited the comparative study of Greek and Near Eastern prayer. Here I will briefly discuss three issues, the privileging of Greek culture over others in the eastern Mediterranean, a form-critical approach that relies on modern genre boundaries rather than ancient indigenous genre categories, and the question of the Indo-European provenance of shared features in Greek and Hittite prayers.

Simon Pulleyn’s careful survey Prayer in Greek Religion remains the starting point for modern research into the topic. In his brief survey of non-Greek prayers he did note that the Hittite corpus contained prayers with stronger similarities to the mentality found in Greek prayers than, e.g., Hebrew or Mesopotamian prayers (Pulleyn 1997:18-26). However, Pulleyn (1997: 18) states, “I hope to demonstrate two things. First, that it is not easy to adduce convincing parallels for the Greek εἴ ποτε prayers from other contemporary Mediterranean societies. It is a specifically Greek phenomenon, not a cultural universal. Secondly, such prayers relied on the same feelings about χάρις which governed relations among mortals in ancient Greek.” Pulleyn begins with the da quia dedi argument in Chryses’ prayer to Apollo (Il. 1.37-42), which can claim the place of the first attested Greek prayer:

Listen to me, silver-bowed one, you who haunt Chryse,
and very holy Killa and rule Tenedos with strength,
Smintheus, if ever (ei pote) I roofed over a shrine pleasing to you,
or if ever I burned fatty thigh pieces
of bulls and goats, grant my wish.
May the Danaans pay for my tears with your weapons.

Chryses’ argument is strikingly similar to a standard argument of Hittite prayers, for example, Mursili II’s daily prayer to Telipinu (ca. 1300 BCE, CTH 377), as noted by Pulleyn himself (22):

(§5) You, Telipinu, are an important god. And for you, m[y] god, temples are well-built in Hatti alone. Furthermore, there are none for you in any [o]ther land at all. They [continually give] feasts and sacrifices [for you] in Hatti alone that are pure [and consecrated]. Furthermore in no other land do they continually give them to you.

(§6) [There are] pure temples for you, [ornamented] wi[th silver and gold], in the land of Hatti al[one. Furthermore for you there are none] in any other la[nd].

Pulleyn certainly does not show the bias of his predecessors, for example, Eduard Norden’s (1913: 3-38, 276-316) contrast of “Oriental,” i.e., Hebrew, prayers with Greek ones (see Metcalf 2015a: 10-11, 120-1 critiquing his findings); Pulleyn concedes that this Hittite prayer “is structurally very similar to some Greek prayers” (22). Yet, we can still detect a tinge of “Orientalism” ­– Greek egalitarianism contrasted with Near Eastern slavishness – in his dismissing of Hittite prayer: “[S]ome experts on Hittite religion believe that the Hittites saw their relationship to their gods as being that of servant to master or subject to king. It would therefore be distorting to see them as being like Homeric heroes talking to their gods” (26). Pulleyn cites Gurney (1952: 150-60; 1977: 1-3) for this view, yet it is not hard to find an exactly opposing view, for example, in Lebrun’s Hymnes et prières hittites (1980: 45-7), who speaks rather of, “la dignité de l’homme, voire sa liberté,” in the king’s dealing with the gods. This is not to say that Lebrun’s position is not also shaped by the desire to find shared cultural values among the ancient people he studies; my point, rather, is that the study of prayer in ancient religion is an area that even relatively recently was constrained by modern cultural values.

Christopher Metcalf’s deeply erudite The Gods Rich in Praise: Early Greek and Mesopotamian Religious Poetry (2015a) is a full-length comparative study of Greek and Mesopotamian celebratory “hymns,” also with mostly negative results:

Despite some general similarities …, I would conclude that there is no evidence to suggest that early Greek hymns were indebted to Near Eastern models in formal terms. This conclusion, if correct, represents a corrective to the currently prevailing view that all of early Greek poetry should be seen as directly or indirectly indebted to such models. It also suggests that broad, cumulative arguments based on a collection of disparate parallels should be regarded with suspicion, since they may not be able to bear the weight that has been placed on them. (Metcalf 2015a: 224)

Certainly, it is true that the cumulative argument used by West (1997) to make his point of Greek dependence on Near Eastern (mostly Mesopotamian) literature makes no effort to understand each putative parallel as a component of its own system of signifiers (Kelly 2008). But, one question concerning Metcalf’s approach is whether focusing on “stylistic conventions” (Metcalf 2015a: 221), that is, examining the texts as literature, rather than tools in the human competition to engage individual gods, who themselves were imagined to be competing with each other for the attention of humans, gets at the reasons why texts or textual motifs would be transferred from one language to another, which is an essential piece of the puzzle when engaging in comparative work.

Secondly, by limiting himself to a set of texts that belong to a (modern) category that itself is notoriously hard to delineate – hymns, rather than prayers – Metcalf has lost an opportunity to study a set of Greek and Near Eastern texts that do share striking parallels deserving of explanation. Modern scholars try to draw a dividing line between a hymn and a prayer based on the relative quantity of praise versus argument and request (Metcalf 2015a: 9, 110, 126-9), or whether the performance offers something to the god or trades on the reciprocal obligation between worshipper and god created by offerings and benefits in the past, present, and/or future (Pulleyn 1997: 42-55). Meanwhile, ancient sources discussing genres, in particular the vexed – for modern scholars – question of distinguishing hymn from prayer, are not always as helpful at distinguishing categories as we might like. Thus, the term humnos can be applied to texts we would call prayers insofar as they feature a request, and Plato (Laws 700ab), notoriously considers eukhē and humnos equivalent terms.

In my own analysis, I start from the delineation of Carolus Ausfeld (1903), who defined Greek prayer thus: opening invocation, closing prex, and an intervening pars epica, as modified by later scholars such as Jan M. Bremer (1981: 196), who proposed the more transparent nomenclature of invocation, argument, and petition. I also take into account the analysis of Herbert Meyer (1933: 5), who divided the feature called “invocation” by Ausfeld and Bremer into invocation proper that summons the god and praise that empowers the god, reminding him of his rights and responsibilities with both epithets and clauses describing the god. One advantage of this definition is that the sections strikingly match the indigenous terminology used by Hittite scribes for Hittite prayers (Laroche 1964), and it can include “hymns.”

How to evaluate the significance of parallels between the Hittite and Greek material remains a key methodological question. Do they reveal to us the earliest form of Proto-Indo-European prayer or do they shed light on religious practices endemic to the Aegean? A comparison to non-literary Roman prayer (e.g., Cato, de ag.141), that is, prayers that are not heavily influenced by Greek models and have Italic parallels, shows that, like non-literary Greek prayers (on which see Pulleyn 1997: 149-50), traditional Roman prayers are made up of an invocation and request, but the phraseology is quite distinct; although both sets are prayers, they are not related at the Proto-Indo-European level. Roman prayers invoke the deity with a long list of epithets or subordinate deities that represent his or her qualities or field of action; it makes use of bicola and tricola, of alliteration and assonance, and merisms; and it shares phraseology with juridical language (Hickson Hahn 2007). (On the Indo-European provenance of such poetic structures see Schmitt 1967: 206-220; Watkins 1995: 197-228.) The poetic figures are analogous to those of the Old Avestan Haptaŋhaiti (Watkins 1995: 232-40) and have parallels in Luwian and Hittite incantations preserved in descriptions of rituals that the scribes attribute to (frequently) illiterate performers such as the Old Woman, exorcist or augur, including the Ritual for an Ominous Bee (e.g., §19”’-20”’) (Watkins 1995: 40-7). Such traditional concatenations of reciprocal blessings and curses were incorporated into Hittite prayer, for example Mursili’s daily prayer (§11′-13′, 17′).

In fact, it is well-known among Hittitologists that Hittite prayers of the Empire period (1350-1175 BCE) were built out of passages of disparate origins (Carruba 1983; Güterbock 1978; Lebrun 1980: 461-5; Wilhelm 1994), including the praise found first in the Hymn to the Sun-god (CTH 372-4, ca. 1400 BCE), which is a translation of the Sumerian Utu the Hero, probably by way of Akkadian (Metcalf 2011; 2015b; 2015a: 94-7, 193-6). And, the genre’s history renders West’s statement about the Indo-European origins of Hittite prayer void (2007: 323): “When the deity has been effectively invoked and landed, it remains to ask him or her for boons. This completes a logical structure that is arguably Indo-European. The invocatory hymn to Telipinu read daily on behalf of the Hittite king exemplifies it well.” Moreover, the motif of the arrival of the god on his horse-drawn chariot shared among Vedic Indians, Hittites, Greeks, which reached the Hittites via Mesopotamian-origin prayers (Wilhelm 1994: 66-7).

My own ongoing research into the sources behind the various sections of Empire-period prayer promises to shed light not only on the history of Hittite prayer, and therefore on questions about Proto-Indo-European culture, but also on the process by which Greek-speakers who came into contact with the indigenous inhabitants of Anatolia as they (re-)settled its Aegean coast at the beginning of the Iron Age adopted and adapted elements of Near Eastern-style worship as they equated their own gods with Near Eastern gods. The next step in my project is to delve into the Near Eastern (Syro-Anatolian) elements of the divine personalities of Dionysus, Demeter, Persephone, and Aphrodite, and how they interface with the Syro-Anatolian elements of the verbal art their Greek worshippers used to attract their attention.


Ausfeld, C. 1903. “De graecorum precationibus quaestiones.” Jahrbücher für classische Philologie. Supplementum 28:503-47.

Bachvarova, M. R. 2006. “Divine justice across the Mediterranean: Hittite arkuwars and the trial scene in Aeschylus’ Eumenides.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 6:123-153.

———. 2007. “Oath and allusion in Alcaeus fr. 129.” In Horkos: The Oath in Ancient Greek Society, ed. A. H. Sommerstein and J. Fletcher, 258-64. Exeter.

———. 2009. “Hittite and Greek perspectives on travelling poets, festivals and texts.” In Wandering Poets in Ancient Greek Culture: Travel, Locality and Pan-Hellenism, ed. R. Hunter and I. C. Rutherford, 23-45. Cambridge.

———. 2016. From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge.

Bremer, J. M. 1981. “Greek hymns.” In Faith, Hope and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World, ed. H. S. Versnel. Studies in Greek and Roman Religion 2:193-215. Leiden.

Carruba, O. 1983. “Saggio sulla preghiera etea (a proposito di CTH 376).” In Studi orientalistici in ricordo di Franco Pintore, ed. O. Carruba, M. Liverani, and C. Zaccagnini. Studia Mediterranea 4:3-27. Pavia.

Gurney, O. R. 1952. The Hittites. Melbourne.

Gurney, O. R. 1977. Some Aspects of Hittite Religion. London.

Güterbock, H. G. 1978. “Some aspects of Hittite prayers.” In The Frontiers of Human Knowledge: Lectures Held at the Quincentenary Celebrations of Uppsala University 1977, ed. T. T. Segerstedt, 125-39. Stockholm and Atlantic Highlands, N. J.

Hickson Hahn, F. 2007. “Performing the Sacred: Prayers and Hymns.” In A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. J. Rüpke, 235-248. Malden, Mass.

Kelly, A. 2008. “The Babylonian captivity of Homer: The case of the Διὸς Ἀπάτη.” Rheinisches Museum 151:259-304.

Laroche, E. 1964. “La prière hittite: Vocabulaire et typologie.” Annuaire, École Pratique des Hautes Études (Ve Section), Sciences Religieuses 72:3-29.

Lebrun, R. 1980. Hymnes et prières hittites. Homo Religiosus 4. Louvain-la-Neuve.

Metcalf, C. 2011. “New parallels in Hittite and Sumerian praise of the sun.” Die Welt des Orients 41:168-176.

———. 2015a. The Gods Rich in Praise: Early Greek and Mesopotamian Religious Poetry. Oxford.

———. 2015b. “Old Babylonian religious poetry in Anatolia: From solar hymn to plague prayer.” Zeitschrift der Assyriologie 105:42-53.

Meyer, H. 1933. Hymnische Stilelemente in der frühgriechischen Dichtung. Würzburg.

Norden, E. 1913. Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formen-Geschichte Religiöser Rede. Leipzig and Berlin.

Pulleyn, S. 1997. Prayer in Greek Religion. Oxford.

Schmitt, R. 1967. Dichtung und Dichtersprache in indogermanischer Zeit. Wiesbaden.

Watkins, C. 1995. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford.

West, M. L. 1997. The East Face of Helicon. Oxford.

———. 2007. Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford.

Wilhelm, G. 1994. “Hymnen der Hethiter.” In Hymnen der Altern Welt im Kulturvergleich, ed. W. Burkert and F. Stolz, 59-78. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 131. Freiburg, Switzerland and Göttingen.