The Art of Invocation

In the Orphism of late antiquity (representing the theoretical rather than operative side of the tradition) the Gods possess names, souls, and bodies. The name signifies their absolute, eternal, perfect, and unchanging nature. The henad of the God, as Plato might say. The soul is how the God manifests in the world, the unique area of influence that it possesses, those concepts and activities associated with it, but which are not of its fundamental nature. (Thus, for instance, one might say that Aphrodite and Hera are both Goddesses of love, concerned with its promotion and protection in the world – but they are not the concept of love itself, as evidenced by the fact that they have other, more complex functions as well.) 

And finally, the body of the God, which in antiquity was usually contained in its tomb or temple, whether thought to be an actual relic of the God or simply a symbolic representative image of the deity, and was highly localized and thus distinct from place to place. This plays into the notion of divine manifestation: the deity remained always in the realm of the eternal – however, it could choose to send a portion of itself out and either manifest spiritually through dreams, visions, and similar things, or through natural phenomena such as a rain-storm, a sunrise, or the growth of plants. Alternately, it could temporarily inhabit objects – the cult image, a sacred place, or else its holy animal or a priest in a trance state. These distinct manifestations could be simultaneous – the God would remain in heaven, while also being present as a numinous energy felt by all of its worshipers, and additionally being manifest in its statue hidden deep in the temple’s sanctuary. More so, the God could be present in multiple locations at the same time – thus if people were doing synchronized rituals in Rome, Athens, and Memphis at the same hour, the God could be at each one even though great distances separated these places. 

However, the highly localized nature of the body of the God – the materials used in its construction, the specific locality where it could be found, the variant traditions that had developed around the cult center – assured that there were also differences, despite the ultimate idealized unity of the Godhead. It was important to emphasize the specific form of the God you were calling on, the version of the deity that you had a previous relationship with, where he or she was originating from, and so forth. It wouldn’t do to call on the abstract idea – you had to trace them through their localized manifestation, through the proximity of their “body” since this was where their potency lay. Thus, for instance, we always find in the invocations their names are always accompanied by local descriptors (Pythian Apollon vs Clarian Apollon) or epithets (Athene Ergane, Demeter Thesmophoros) and we can even see distinctions between these manifestations: thus when Xenophon sets out as a Greek mercenary in the employ of the Persian Cyrus he is under the guidance and protection of Zeus Basileios (Anabasis 3.1.5-8), but later on meets with obstacles set in his path by Zeus Meilichios who is angry because the general hasn’t sacrificed to him in this form since leaving Athens (7.8.3-6) or the way that Dionysos Meilichios puts an end to the raging madness of Dionysos Bakchios. (Athenaios 3.78c) They are ultimately the same God – but also meant to be approached as distinct entities.

The invocation also further emphasizes the distinct spatial and temporal manifestations of the God – first in its original home, the cult center found in ancient religious practice and mythology (which can further be viewed as an anchor in eternity) – secondly through mention of Alexandria, which serves as a medium between the ideal and the local, anchors the God in the past, and also bonds together all those who are using this same formula, and finally through the mention of one’s local city, which suggests that the Gods did not cease to be active in some remote period in history, and are not distant and cut off from us – but manifest right here, right now, a constant presence for those capable of seeing them, and further reveal themselves to the individual in a personal form. 

And as mentioned earlier, that personal connection is vitally important. Thus the central space in the invocation has been left blank so that the individual can fill it in with their own understanding of the God and mention of past experiences. This is an important nod to the ancient Greek side of our faith, based as it was on the concept of charis or reciprocal action. Basically, the whole relationship that the ancient Greek had with his Gods was established on a series of gift-exchanges: the Gods had given the individual assistance in the past (good crops, inspiration, help in a tight spot) and in return he thanked them through sacrifices and devotional activities or promises to do these if the prayer request was met, which produced good will in the God, inclining them to further beneficial actions, which in turn called forth additional praises and offerings. This wasn’t simply a mercenary exercise to bribe the Gods: it was rather an acknowledgement of their importance in our lives and a continual effort at mindfulness and gratitude. It further reminded people that nothing in life was free, that everything required hard work, and if you are going to ask something from the Gods, you have to be willing to carry out your side of the bargain through the fulfillment of your oath. It also set the stage for future interaction with the God by bringing to mind – both for yourself and for them – the ways in which your life had intersected with theirs in the past. 

As you speak your invocations, remain mindful of that. Try to speak from the heart. Don’t worry about using a preset formula of address – let the epithets and descriptions rise poetically from your soul, even if they are inelegant and you stumble over them. In time this will come naturally to you, and you’ll have a whole stock of expressions to employ – some of them drawn from the lore, some entirely personal and based on your own understanding and experiences with the God.