Originally, when ritual was still part of everyday life and everybody talked to gods and goddesses all the time, we spoke to them in everyday words. As time went on and priests assumed more power, however, exalted language and fulsome invocations arose, and pretty soon only the High Priest could speak to God Most High. We common folks were allowed to pray, of course, but the important prayers were uttered by the priests.
During the European Renaissance and all the way up to the 19th-century occult revival, it was thought that the gods spoke Hebrew and Latin. Ceremonial magicians wrote rituals in these languages or made up other highly esoteric languages like crypto-Egyptian, quasi-Sanskrit, and Enochian (the “angelic language” of the Elizabethan Dr. Dee). If you read books on high occultism, you’ll see scripts in these languages. Trying to pronounce the words can be like trying to unscrew the inscrutable.
Fortunately, we discovered that it can be dangerous to invoke an invisible power in a language we can neither understand nor enunciate properly nor improvise in. As anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows, boners come easily and can be very embarrassing. Worse, some powers may become angry if we mispronounce their names … or we may not get who we intended to call. Like the modern Roman Catholic Church, occultists, ceremonial magicians, and witches have generally adopted the vernacular.
But this leads us into a different verbal trap. Thanks to John Milton (Paradise Lost), John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress), and James I of England (the king who authorized the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible), generations of people seem to have believed that the divine eardrums resonate only to an approximation of Elizabethan or Jacobean English. Just eavesdrop on anyone offering a little prayer at the Rotary or a football game. It’s religiobabble—“thou art,” “we beseech thee,” “thou saidst,” and so on.
Pagans do it, too. I have attended sabbats with perfect normal Southern Californians that suddenly turn into a low-level Shakespearean road companies, complete with Renaissance Faire costumes (and weapons) and mangled language.
If you really want to essay Elizabethan or Jacobean English to add a fancy touch to your prayers, keep in mind that thou is the singular, intimate form of you. (It’s like the French tu and the German du.) Use thou in its various forms to address one god or goddess. The plural is you. For the subject of a verb, say thou; for the object of a verb or preposition, use thee. “Thou art divine.” “I give thee my love.” “I bow to thee.” The adjective form is thy, and if the next word starts with a vowel sound, it’s thine. “Thy will be done.” “Thine earth is holy.” Be sure to use the correct verb form (singular or plural). “I am, thou art, he/she is, we are, you are, they are.”
Keep in mind, however, that no one has spoken Elizabethan or Jacobean English, except on stage, since the early 17th century. Give your god or goddess some credit for keeping up with the times. Speak to them in standard English. When you’re not concentrating on getting archaic subject-verb agreement straight, you can concentrate on your intention and your visualization.
As you compose your prayer or invoke your goddesses or gods, especially if you’re speaking out loud, one of your major concerns has to be sentence length. We humans need to breathe regularly and at the proper points so we don’t separate ideas and sound stupid. Long sentences leave anyone except a trained actor breathless, and we tend to stumble on the thorns of syntax when we go on and on and on. The best way to check what you’ve written is to read it aloud, note where you stumble, and rewrite.
Sometimes we also like to elevate our ritual language and our prayers by composing them in verse. Verse (rhymed or unrhymed) is often easier to remember because of its patterns and repetitions, which also make the effect of the words cumulative, that is, they build to a natural climax. If you’re writing verse, use the language you congregation or circle or coven understands, not some highly elevated, esoteric vocabulary. God and/or the Goddess happily understand our everyday words. Use a simple rhythm, like iambic (di-DAH). There’s a good reason Shakespeare and Milton wrote so much iambic pentameter (di-DAH, di-DAH, di-DAH, di-DAH, di-DAH). That’s how English normally goes along. (And for variety you can also add trochees [DAH-di], anapests [di-di-DAH], or dactyls [DAH-di-di] and other metric feet.)
The important thing to remember when we’re talking to God or Goddess is that the divine ear hears the silent language of our hearts. Yes, we need to speak clearly and get the grammar right, but when we’re speaking our mother tongue, Mother hears us.
*This is adapted from my Practicing the Presence of the Goddess (New World Library, 2000), which is now available in a Kindle edition.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.