Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 5. Prayer and Supplication


Apart from *prek-, studied above, several terms meaning “to pray” have limited sets of correspondences within the Indo-European family. One dialect group consisting of Hittite, Slavic, Baltic, Armenian (and perhaps Germanic) present forms related to Hitt. maltāi– ‘to pray’; another group, Iranian-Celtic-Greek, all present terms made from the root *ghwedh– ‘to pray, desire’. Etymologists have been embarrassed by the divergence of sense between Greek litḗ, líssomai ‘prayer, to pray’ and Lat. litare ‘to obtain a favorable omen, to appease the divinity’. However, the formal identity of the roots makes the equation irresistible. The difficulty is resolved if it is observed that the translation of litḗ in Homer is too vague; the terms means properly ‘a prayer to obtain restitution, or an agreement on compensation’ and as such is distinct from eukhōlḗ ‘a prayer of “devotion”’.”The etymological link between Gr. litḗ and Latin litare lies in their common denominator, the idea of propitiation. In Latin and Greek the words for “to supplicate,” “suppliant” are made from a root of concrete meaning: it denotes the gesture which is characteristic of supplication. Lat. supplex means etymologically “bent at the feet of (sub)” from the root *plek-; supplicium, which was doubtless originally the material offering of supplication, took the sense of “punishment, execution” when the offering of reparation consisted of corporal punishment. As for Gr. hikétēs, a number of Homeric examples (e.g. Od. 5, 445-450; 9, 266-260) make certain the connection with hikánō ‘reach, touch’; the gesture of supplication in fact consists of touching the person who is supplicated.


All these ceremonies serve the purpose, by offerings and invocations, of bringing man and god into mutual relationships. But the act is opposed to, or is added to, the act of speech. The terms considered up till now have involved consideration of the “practical” part of this relationship between man and god. Everywhere “to sacrifice” is presented as “doing something,” whether it is Lat. sacrificare, sacrumfacere and also, with the ablative, tauro facere, or Greek rhézein, or Indo-Iranian kar– ‘to do’. But every religious “action” is accompanied by a “prayer.” These are the two halves of the complete rite; the two ways of communicating with the divine world.
For “prayer” there are few words which are common to more than one language. One of these has been studied above; it comes from the root *prek-, the derivatives of which are found in various departments of the vocabulary: Lat. precor, *prex, preces. We allude to this only to recall the proper sense of precor, ‘seek to obtain, to ask in appropriate terms for what is regarded as justified’, a procedure which implies the use of words. The verb precor is often associated in ancient Roman formulas with quaeso (quaero), the combination indicating the wish to procure or to acquire something.
With the identification of the Hittite verb maltāi– ‘to recite invocations, to pray’, with its derivative the neuter noun maldeššar ‘prayer, invocation’, [1] an Indo-European term common to a number of languages came to light. This Hittite verb links up with forms previously known only from Baltic and Slavic, and this established a peculiar connection between dialects which otherwise have no special interconnections. Hittite maltāi– may be compared with Lithuanian meldžiù melsti ‘to pray’, maldà ‘prayer’; OSl. moljǫ with the middle form moliti () translating respectively déomai, parakalô of the Gospel and proséukhomai; Polish modlić się ‘to pray’, modla ‘prayer’, Czech modla ‘idol, temple’. Baltic and Slavic thus attest the present tense *meld. With a phonetic difference in the final consonant of the root, we could also compare Armenian małtcem ‘I pray, I implore’, where the tc goes back either to *t or *th. There would thus be an alternation d/t(h) which we should perhaps accept in view of the close semantic relation. The sense which appears everywhere of “to pray, recite a prayer, implore” reveals a group consisting of Hittite, Baltic, Slavic, and Armenian with perhaps the addition, though with a weakened sense, of the family of the German melden, OHG meldōn, meldjan ‘to say, announce, report’. We have here one of the rare cases where Hittite provides evidence which is of immediate use for the reconstruction of an institutional term relating to religion.
Another lexical unit can be posited in the form *ghwedh– with the sense ‘to pray, desire’. It includes in Iranian the Old Persian ǰadiya-, Av. ǰadya– ‘to ask by means of prayer (to the divinity)’, Sogdian āgadak ‘vow’; at the other end of the Indo-European world the Irish guidim ‘ask, pray’, guide ‘prayer’. Between these two extremes we have the Greek forms which present two different forms: pothéo ‘desire, miss’ and thêssasthai ‘to implore’.
Germanic has its own terminology for “prayer”: Got. bidjan ‘ask, pray’, bida ‘demand, prayer’. But the intra-Germanic relations as well as the relations of Germanic to the rest of Indo-European are complicated by the appearance of two groups, represented by German bitten and beten. Two etymological possibilities have been envisaged: (1) a connection with the family of Latin fido, Gr. peithō (see Book One, Chapter Eight) and (2) a root *bhedh– ‘to bend’, this being prompted by comparison of Old Saxon kniobeda ‘prayer (on one’s knees)’ with the Skt. jñubādh– ‘one who bends the knees’.
The main problem in this field is presented by a nominal form peculiar to Greek, where “prayer” or “supplication” is expressed by litḗ, which is the basis of the denominative verb líssomai ‘to pray, supplicate’. There is only one form which can be compared and this is very close, in fact virtually identical, and this is the Latin litare. But this verb has a very different sense: litare does not mean ‘to supplicate’ but ‘to obtain a favorable omen’, as a consequence of a sacrifice, this when speaking of the person making the offering, or ‘to present a favorable omen’ when speaking of the sacrificial animal. The sense of litare is extended to ‘to propitiate a divinity’, ‘to obtain one’s desire’, ‘to appease’. This semantic difference is enough to cause hesitation about equating the Greek and Latin forms. The Romans themselves felt that there was a relationship between the Latin and the Greek terms and some of them explained it by assuming borrowing from Greek: “ …alii ex Graeco, a precibus quas illi λιτάς, dicunt” (Festus 103,13). This notice of Festus implies that litare is a denominative verb from *lita, which was presumably taken over from Greek.
Opinions are still divided on this point: the dictionary of Ernout-Meillet envisages a borrowing but expresses doubt and says nothing about the meaning; J. B. Hofmann takes litare as a borrowing from Greek and explains the sense by supposing that litare first meant “to supplicate,” whence, in connection with, and in opposition to sacrificare, it came to mean “to accomplish favorably an offering of supplication.” But this is far from convincing.
We also think that litare is the denominative from *lita and that this noun was borrowed from Greek litḗ. But the gap between Gr. litḗ ‘prayer, supplication’ and Lat. litare ‘to obtain favorable omens’ is insurmountable if we keep to the traditional translations. The problem is to give precision to the sense of Gr. litḗ, líssomai, for “supplicate” is too vague an equivalent. What was the purpose of this “supplication”? And from what attitude does it proceed?
In order to reach a closer definition of litḗ we must re-examine the celebrated passage of the Iliad (9, 500ff.) where, on the occasion of the embassy to Achilles, the “Prayers” (Litai) are invoked as divine persons. Phoenix implores Achilles to forget his wrath and to take up his arms again:

You need not have a pitiless heart; the gods themselves can bend. And their merit, glory and strength is greater than yours. Yet men can sway them … by imploring them (lissómenoi), whenever one has transgressed and has done wrong. For there are the Prayers (Litai), the daughters of mighty Zeus … They are mindful to follow after Atē (blind folly, delusion) … Atē is strong and fleet of foot and she far outruns them all and comes first in doing harm to men over the whole earth. But they (the Prayers) come after and heal the hurt. To the man who respects the daughters of Zeus when they approach him they bring much help and hearken to his vows. He who refuses them and roughly rejects them, they go to ask Zeus, son of Kronos, to attach Atē to him that he may suffer and pay the penalty.

From this passage two hints may be derived regarding the sense of líssomai. Men “supplicate” (lissómenoi) the gods when they have sinned by transgression or error (1. 501). This supplication (litḗ) has the purpose of obtaining pardon for a wrong done to the gods. We interpret in the same way the role of the Prayers. The point of the allegory is that the one who suffers from having sinned through blindness or distraction will be cured and achieve the fulfillment of his vows by means of Prayer (Litḗ). But if he rejects Prayer she will bring on him the punishment of Zeus. The purpose of a litḗ is to do reparation for an offence given to the gods—and not only to the gods. When Chryses presents himself with the fillets of Apollo on a scepter, in an elaborate and solemn approach, he supplicates (elísseto) all the Achaeans (Il. 1,15): “May the gods grant you to take the city of Priam and to return safe and sound to your homes; but for my part, may you also give me back my daughter and accept a ransom, showing thereby that you revere the son of Zeus, Apollo …” This is because the Achaeans have affronted the priest of Apollo and for this the god exacts payment. This litḗ of Chryses is a demand for reparation; see also Thetis when she supplicates (lissoménē) Zeus for the affront to her son Achilles (1, 502ff.). Another example is the supplications addressed to Meleager by the elders, by his parents, and by his wife to make him forget his anger (9, 553ff.); or Antilochus supplicating Menelaos to disarm his anger (23, 608ff). There are many other passages which lead to the same conception. Thus litḗ is very different from eûkhos or eukhōlḗ.

To sum up, the litḗ is a prayer to offer reparation to the person, god or man, who has been outraged, or with a view to obtaining from the god for oneself reparation for an outrage.
We now see that the relation between Latin litare and Greek líssomai can be restored. The intermediate form Latin *litā will have meant “prayer to offer reparation to a god whom one has offended,” just like the Greek litḗ. In the denominative litare we shall see the idea “to make the god accept the offering of reparation,” which in fact corresponds to the normal use of the word. The god signals his acceptance by a favorable sign, after an expiatory sacrifice (cf. Plautus Poen. 489; Livy 27, 23).
We always have the tendency to transpose into other languages the precise meanings which terms of the same general sense connote in our own language. To pray and to supplicate for us are words of almost identical meaning and differ only in emotional intensity. By translating them in this way we deprive the ancient terms of their specific value so that the difference which was originally proper to the words is blurred by a spurious uniformity. To correct these distorting translations we always need contact with, and the inspiration of, living usages.
The expression of supplication is different in the two classical languages, but more precise in the ancient world than it is today, because it was charged with a material sense which the terms no longer convey but which we can still bring to light.
The Latin verb supplicare ‘to supplicate’ is made from the adjective supplex, from which the substantive supplicium is derived, a word which has a curious development. [2]
For supplex, from sub + plex, there are two possible explanations. The first is the one given by the Romans themselves, who connected –plex with the verb placare, which appears with tmesis in the phrase sub vos placo, in a Latin poet cited by Festus p. 309, for vos supplicio. But this runs into a phonetic difficulty: plāco has a long root vowel a, and this could not have yielded the short a implied by –plex. In fact, plācō is a causative verb with root lengthening from the verb expressing a state plāceo, ‘I please’, whence plācō ‘I make pleasing’, ‘calm, appease, reconcile’. Nor could one posit a relation between placeo and –plex to bring the etymology into conformity with Roman Sprachgefühl.
The true explanation of supplex is provided by the series of adjectives in –plex with which it must be associated: simplex, duplex, etc., corresponding to Greek haploûs, diploûs, etc. We recognize in this –plex the nominal form of *plek-, which is attested by (im)plicare and, with a present stem form with the suffix –t-, by plecto, amplector, etc. The idea is clearly “to fold or bend”; thus simplex is “what makes only one fold,” plecto ‘to fold’ for the purpose of plaiting, rolling up, knotting together plaited threads; amplector literally “to curve oneself round,” hence “to embrace.” This same –plex is also found in complex ‘plaited with’, that is “closely bound up with”; such is the primary sense of complex. Later, in Christian Latin, complex is limited to the meaning “bound to an evil action,” hence “accountable,” “accomplice.”
When it is integrated into this series of words, supplex is seen to be a term descriptive of the posture of the suppliant, “the one who is bent at the feet of … ,” and the present supplice means “to adopt the posture of the suppliant.”
With the substantive supplicium the perspective changes. From early Latin, from Plautus onwards, supplicium only means “punishment, execution.” Between supplicium and supplicare there was already the difference of sense that is still found today between French supplice ‘punishment’ and supplier ‘to supplicate’.
Supplicium has a very peculiar history the beginnings of which may be imagined as follows. We start with a literal sense “the fact of being supplex,” “to behave as a supplex,” then “the proof of the state of supplex.” From this supplicium was used to denote first the object, in practice an offering, by which the supplex manifests his submission to the god. With this initial sense of supplicium there went also that of supplicare ‘to offer the god an oblation in order to appease him’ and of supplicatio ‘an offering, prayer or ceremony to appease the anger of a god’.
This enables us to see how supplex came to have connotations which are not revealed by its etymology and which are due to the particular circumstances of “supplication,” that is the intention to appease the wrath of a divinity. Very early on, in conditions which we do not know precisely, all the terms of this family came to be restricted to the idea of appeasement of a divinity.
Later, in metaphorical uses, the terms were employed in the same sense for human relations: Plautus Merc. 991, supplici sibi sumat quid volt ipse ob hanc iniuriam ‘let him take what he wants by way of supplicium because of this injury’. The person wronged “takes” (sumat!) a certain supplicium. This example explains why supplicium assumed the construction with dare, and sumere, which was to become the usual one, as in Terence Heaut. 138 … illi de me supplicium dabo. Here de me suggests that what he is offering is corporal punishment, a physical compensation inflicted on his own person. The construction of supplicium is, in fact, the same as with poena in the phrase poenas dare. In these conditions supplicium from now on acquired a specific sense; this is the “compensation” par excellence in circumstances where only personal chastisement is an adequate recompense for a wrong done; what is suffered is a “supplice,” to use the French word derived from supplicium, meaning “severe corporal punishment, torture.”
The conditions in which the word was used in religious contexts thus show how the legal sense came to be established. The supplicium becomes a mode of placare, of “appeasing,” and this is how the gap in sense between supplicium and supplicatio came about. We see how particular conditions can break up a family of words and install some members in different semantic groups.
Having now briefly analyzed the Latin facts, we can turn to the Greek concept. This is expressed by the agent noun hikétēs ‘suppliant’. Such is the classical form which has survived in the tradition, whereas the variants híktōr, hiktḗr are limited to tragedy. Its derivatives are the epithet hiketḗrios ‘pertaining to the hikétēs’, ‘he who has the function of protecting the suppliant’, and the denominative hiketeúō ‘to be a hikétēs’, the equivalent of the Latin supplico.
The noun hikétēs is derived from the verb híkō ‘to come, arrive’, which furnishes the present stems hikánō, hiknéomai. From a morphological point of view this derivation is regular; but these different present tenses convey no more than the simple notion of “arriving.”
Is it possible to conceive of a relation between “to arrive” and so precise a notion as “suppliant”? One comparatist, Wilhelm Schulze, [3] suggested that hikétēs had nothing to do with these verbs, but should be connected with another root, *ik– (without an initial aspirate), that of the Gothic aihtron ‘to beg, beseech’, which translates aiteîsthai, proseúkhesthai. This approximates to the sense of hikétēs, but at the price of a difficulty: Schulze had to suppose that the initial aspirate of hikétēs was due to a secondary connection with híkō. We should have to resign ourselves to this explanation only if there were no other possibility in Greek. Now the formal relation between hikétēs and híkō is as satisfying, both phonetically and morphologically, as one could wish; the external unity of the forms is evident. The problem is one of sense.
Híkō is everywhere translated as “to arrive”: we have the Homeric cliché dómon hikésthai ‘to arrive home’. But the most frequent use is not necessarily the most revealing. It may well be that the use which eventually became general for various reasons obliterated an essential element of the primary sense.
The verb in fact presents a variety of senses to which it is worth drawing attention. Thus in Homer (Il. 4, 303) we read: “Let no one go alone, in front of the others, to do battle with the Trojans … But whoever from his own chariot reaches (híkētai) another chariot, let him thrust with his spear.” Similarly, “the smoke of the sacrifice reaches (hîke) the sky” (1, 317); or again with kléos (cf. Il. 8, 192; Od. 9, 20), fame “reaches” the sky. Here is another thing which specifies híkō, as it does hiknéomai and hikánō: it can take as its subject a noun denoting some strong emotion like anger (Il. 9, 525), anguish (ákhos) (23, 47; 2, 171, etc.): the anguish “touches” the heart of the hero; a physical sensation, fatigue (13, 711) “attains” the knees.
Seen from this angle, the trite expression dómon hikésthai acquires its full force: “attain to, touch one’s home (at the end of a movement or effort).”
Some examples imply a more precise notion: “This is why I now ‘arrive’ at your knees (tà sà gounath’ hikánomai) to find out if you are disposed to give my son a shield and a helmet” (Il. 18,457). The verb certainly has the sense “to arrive, to reach,” but at the same time it leads on to that of hikétēs: “I contact your knees in order to supplicate you.” In a long passage of the Odyssey the notion that we have dissociated are clearly brought together. This is the prayer of Odysseus to the god of the river on the banks of which the storm has just cast him: “I come to (hikáno) you, sought with many prayers (polúlliston); and worthy of respect (aidoîos) also to the immortal gods is the man who arrives (híkētai) after long wandering, as I now do at your stream and your knees after much suffering.” And the last line completes the relation between the verb hikáno and hikétēs: “Take pity on me, Ο Lord, I declare that I am your suppliant (hikétēs)” (Od. 5, 445).
It suffices to read this passage as a whole to grasp its clear implications. The concatenation of the terms itself shows how the two notions of hikánō and hikétēs were felt to be associated. The formation of hikétēs is regular: it is certainly the agent noun from híkō. In any case we are not forced to rely on a single example. Here is another which is equally clear (Od. 9, 267-9) “We finally reach your knees … but have respect for the gods. We are your hikétai.”
We may conclude that hikétēs may after all be regarded as an agent noun from the root of which híkō is the thematic present.
One situational fact has prepared the way for this curious development. The meaning “suppliant” is explained by a custom of war known from the epic: a man who is hard pressed by the enemy and wishes to be spared must, in order to save his life, touch the knees of his adversary before the other in the heat of the battle can wound him. Thus, in Iliad 21, 65, Achilles lifts his long spear, intent on striking Lycaon, “but he stooped and darted underneath it and grasped his knees, crying ‘I beseech you (gounoûmai), Achilles, have respect for me and have mercy on me. I am in the position of a hikétēs to you’…” Here we have the link of the verb hikésthai with goúnata ‘to arrive at the knees of’ which gave the agent noun the meaning of “suppliant.”


[ back ] 1. Bull, de la Soc. de Ling, de Paris, 33, 1932, 133ff.
[ back ] 2. The Latin facts as a whole have been clarified in a study by Heinze, Archiv für lateinische Lexicographie XV, 89ff.
[ back ] 3. Quaestiones epicae, 1892, 493.