THE SEMIOTICS OF PRAYER
(final remarkst in: Sofija Grandakovska, Discourse of the Prayer, 2008)
I. Prayer [eu)xh, proveuxh, prosfwnhsij, e)piklhsiv, molítь, prosi] has existed since the earliest times of man’s existence and thus acquired the most diversified forms of pattern and expression. Albeit throughout history it evinces versatile forms (devotion, invocation, act of trust, supplication-petition, praise giving, glorification, psalm, hymnographic forms, and other), nevertheless, its most profound gist has stayed unchanged, and it itself has remained the centerpiece of the spiritual life.
Within the framework of the pre-literature context of prayer, we ascertain the possibility to define prayer as an existential, ritualistic, social, and musical act, as well as the first speech of man that is onomatopoeic in nature. Therefore, the existence of prayer in the archaic poetry is related to its existence as an archetype that transferred its constant elements and the forms of the speaking genres to the later prayer forms in literature, understood as the derived genre forms of high stylistic and poetical connotation.
By changing its external form and maintaining its internal essence as an address, a dialogue, a speech, and language, in the act of communication with the transcendental reality, in the literary period prayer expands its context, establishes itself, and thrives in several directions that disclose its function, too: as a literary-scientific and artistic category, it realizes a relationship with the archetypal, the theological, the aesthetic-ethical, the biblical, the liturgical, the anthropo-semiotic, the linguistic-poetical, and the stylistic expression.
The earliest record testifying to the existence of prayer in literature originates more than 5000 years ago (Keller, 1987, 9), which means that language, myth, religion, art, and literature are higher forms that surpass its organic nature. They are the cognitive forms of man that emerge in the wake of the pre-religion era. The affirmation of the concept of prayer starts as the archetype, and, as a result of its development throughout history, it becomes a literary genre in the Hellenistic, Jewish, Christian, Byzantine, and the Old Slavonic literatures, wherein it attains the form of a poetic-rhetorical genre thatnot onlyretains the communication with the higher form of reality but also supplements it with highly developed poetical and stylistic means of expression.
The development of the prayer discourse in a literary text, that intrinsically absolves the methodology of semiotics, reveals that the stylistic, culturological, sociological, and anthropological context of prayer across time is and has invariably been a profound need of man. Using the semiotic approach, this monograph The Discourse of Prayer expands its field of research to the level of discourse, the theoretical-poetical, the contextual, and the classifying establishment of prayer as a literary genre. The existence of the plethora of prayer forms in the pre-literature period enabled us to structure a hierarchy among them and create a genealogical classification of the oral forms or the archetypes. However, any scientific classification remains subsisting only within its given relative context, for it would refer only to the theoretical and not the historical level. Thus the assertion we confronted is contended through the impossibility to ascertain which prayer form is the first one [a)rxh], that is, the one from which all the others were derived. Therefore, the research of this aspect concludes with one generalized construct on the typology, but not on the chronology of the oral prayer forms.
On the other hand, the prayer discourse in Jewish and Christian literatures, in particular the examples of Byzantine poetry - that stands out by way of its rich genre classification of prayer, amongst which special emphasis is laid as on the liturgical-eucharistic poetical genre - reveals a deep reminiscence of the archetypes that retained the constitutive element of the prayer text in the later literary periods, namely, the existence of two sides that are connected through the principle of a dialogue. As an anthropological-semiotic phenomenon, this communicational dimension of the prayer induces its development as a literary genre as well, thereby bringing our research of prayer as a highly aesthetical act of artistic creation to a close.
II. Prayer is a complex semiotic category. It inherently contains a binary opposition, both in the etymological and the theoretical sense. As an extra-literature phenomenon, it is related to the existential and social functions geared toward the process of the (self)-conceptualization of the primitive awareness, as an act of cognition and cosmization. Hence, prayer ceases to be only a sign of a scream, petition, desire, and alike; instead, it becomes a text that has absolved within itself a hierarchy of signs aimed at introducing structure into man’s life through mythical-magical-ritualistic acts, acts practiced by a certain group of people in the pre-literature period.
As a semiotic category, what does the text of the primitive prayers consist of? Establishing prayer as a pre-literature text, within the general relation sign –denotation, we register the communication between the desire of the primitive awareness to ward off the forces of unknown origin and acknowledge what they refer to. Hence, the forms of the prayer through a scream, a petition, magical formulas of a diviner, evocations, and alike; as oral speech and ritualistic-rite ceremonies; and as visual and external units of the prayer text enhance the symbolical facet of the prayer in the pre-literature period. Prayer as a sign entails the answer to its essence and existence: by way of the prayer discourse, its form, content, and symbolical meaning are rendered. Thus, prayer is immanent to the semiotic approach.
The second semiotic indicator contained in the category of the denotate yields the connection of the language of the prayer to its pragmatic use: how should it be understood, that is, what does prayer convey through its expressive forms? Within this context, the pivotal point of interest is focused on the decoding of the distinct praying procedures. The incorporation of the sign and the denotate (the referred) in the prayer discourse underscores the interest in the question: what (all) can be comprised in its text as a sign, and what is the nature of the sign?
As a means of communication in the pre-literature context, including vocal characteristics of poor or inarticulate syntax, speech designates the nature of the sign in the prayer to be that of an icon. Such communicational expression presupposes an external similarity between the sign and the denotate, that is, the structure of the sign and its essence. Thus, the conditioned sign of the natural language, of the level ofthe other – the denotate, becomes a derived sign that refers similar to similar and proclaims its nature to be icon-like; the iconic sign (Eco, 1973, p.118) reproduces a form of the real relation it refers to. In the pre-literature speech, the content of the prayer is addressed to a higher form of reality, a spirit, a deity, and, later on, God. For man, that reality is unknown, and therefore threatening. Hence, the semiotic characteristic of the prayer discourse renders the very features of the denotate: namely, fear – through a desire to overcome it, and, in turn, to win it over as some kind of good.
Within this context, we discover that the relation archetype-type is contained in the prayer text from the pre-literature period. The semiotics of this relation suggests the designated moment: speech (addressed) to the archetype (the unknown, that looms above like a threat, but at the same time, a salvation, too) represents the inner emotional ambience of the primitive atmosphere through fear. Thus we deem that this archetypal relation discloses the nature of the semiotics of speech as an anthropological moment, that will be retained as a constant integral element in the prayer as a literary fact. Even though it will change its context by virtue of various literary devices, it will keep its constant feature as a constitutive, by and large, iconic sign of versatile prayer discourses as a biblical text, a theological argument, a genre-literary, visual, and cultorological fact: its relationship is one of a dialogue, an act of addressing in the attempt to seek protection and safety.
Through its historical and theoretical contexts as a speech, language, and discourse, prayer decodes the intricate hidden meanings of the original. Here, the prayer’s sacral dimension is ascertained in the need to understand, and in its highest form, the discourse of prayer acquires its most intimate, ontological distinction in the hesychastic prayer, since it presupposes a discovery of one’s innermost hidden – the Christian God as love (infinity).
The iconic relation archetype-type does not only refer to the category of the transcendental reality. Therefore, its re-shifting towards the literary interest of prayer gains both constructive and deconstructive features. This is revealed in the field of authorship: arche-author = individual author; in the field of genre: arche-genre = literary genre; in the field of language: arche-speech = language, alphabet, meta-language, text; in the field of the stylistic-expressive means, in the field of theology, gnoseology, the social-existential, the ritual-religious, the aesthetic-ethical, and the cultorological field.
The literary context of the prayer contains within itself every arche of the prayer discourse from the pre-literature period. This implies the evolutional and modelational stages of the language, that is, the prayer text. Notwithstanding these alternations, every evolution and modification of the prayer mode (expression), without exception, starts with that iconic-arche as a bearer of its future development.
The supreme example of this relationship is illustrated with the representative output of the Hellenic, Jewish, and Christian literary heritage, with a special emphasis laid on Byzantine poetry (including the liturgical-eucharistic and the non-liturgical), as well as the transitional Old Slavonic heritage with eminent examples of the rhythmically organized prayer. What the literary prayer contains from its (pre-literature) arche as its substratum is a dialogical relationship between the poet and the divine reality. Highlighting this fact, the poet, employing his poetic stylistic and literary devices, codifies prayer in a mimetic-language (Hamburger, 1976, 229) and linguistic materialization. Prayer becomes a literary work of art. As a cognitive instrument, prayer strives towards its universalization as a literary phenomenon through rhythm, verse, and meter. The poetical I praises, invokes, beseeches, confesses, and objectively strives toward the same goal as did the primitive awareness. In that fashion, the reader becomes a participant in a poetical praying ceremony. The poetical lexis of the prayer enables repetitions of the arche-substratum through the hymnical resounding of the abstraction and literary etiquetting (Likhachev, 1972, 132-137), as a sign of the spiritual, timeless, eternal, and elated. Thus, prayer as a pre-literary phenomenon asserts itself as a literary text whose constituent part displays an icon-like quality of a literary symbol.
The text of the prayer becomes a text of culture because it references “the universal system of semiotic representation in a way the world is perceived.” Thus, from speech as an oral-vocal-onomatopoeic expression of the inner feeling of the primitive awareness, prayer becomes a discourse that, as a semiotic activity, inserts its meanings into the time-space ambience, the literary-language, and the cultorological context.
III. Our scholastic research, The Discourse of Prayer, dedicated to the phenomenon of prayer, located its initial positions in the question on the origin of prayer, which is cognate with the origin of man. This anthropological context has its underpinning in the following data: that great civilizations, or civilization as such, emanated from man’s fear. Hence, the question: what had existed before civilization as an organized way of life featuring culture and alphabet came into being – we logically linked the origin of prayer to the following question: in what way, in what form, in what context, and with what function it existed. As regards the origin of prayer per se, it is archaeological and anthropological, and the scope of this work is limited to its literary aspects; thus, the question on the origin of prayer inevitably includes its pre-literature context in the archaic poetics as an archetype that belongs to the oral expression and the primary types. To wit, the answer on its origin and further development rests in the first form of human awareness, which is syncretic: myth, magic, ritual, and rite. And its subsequent forms depend on the level of spirituality and the religious life it is studied in, as well as the diversified addressees it targeted. Therefore, the study of the origin of prayer is the question we contended within the fields of the following:
One of the possible definitions of prayer is seeking good. At different levels of cultures, seeking good is related to different ways in which man was searching for good. Hence, using the assets of linguistics, the primitive awareness dwelling in the foyer of human culture and subsisting by way of a mythical-magic mode of thinking, realized its pursuit of good through sacrificial offering to the one it intended to appease. With the development of culture, the concept of sacrifice will get its more perfect and deepened content, ending with Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for humanity. Hence, prayer as seeking good through sacrifice presupposes an act addressed to a higher, unknown reality, so that with the development of civilization, prayer becomes a dialogue with that higher form of reality or God;
2) prayer as a pre-literature phenomenon
When tackling the phenomenon of prayer in primitive cultures, when man had no self-consciousness and no awareness about his environment and processes in nature in general, the archaic poetics raised the following question: how then did man perceive the world around himself, and failing to grasp it, how did he fight against unknown forces in order to survive? Scholars agree that in the attempt to introduce order in his life and nature, man used magic-ritualistic choreography as a cosmogonic agent, and his first arche speech that is always addressed to something or someone;
3) pre-literature context of prayer
Hence, we deem that the answer to the question of the origin of prayer in primitive cultures, wherein the preservation and sustenance of cosmogony, that is, life is an elementary agent, should be ascertained as an answer by way of which prayer appropriates the attributes of the existential, the ritual-rite-musical act articulated as the initial speech of man. In this context, the discourse of prayer is a speech disclosing a primitive spiritual world that strives towards cosmoginization;
4) prayer is…
Despite the appellation ‘primitive’ when referring to the prayer in primitive cultures, we cannot maintain that it is primitive in its essence because its speech consists of several complex factors, that are further on encountered as constant elements in other, more advanced forms of culture; thus, by the same token, in all their expressive forms, they, in turn, invoke reminiscences in literary texts to the same extent. Thus, what is changed is not the essence but the forms of the prayer prototype of the literary prayer
On one hand, it is the primitive prayer that was later superseded by the ritual prayer, however, only in terms of its form. They both carry the emotional speech of the ancient man – visual in its nature - since it is linked to the category of space both as a threat and as an awe-inspiring challenge that should be conquered. Therefore, the first prayers were not addressed to no one and nothing in particular. In later periods, when fear was bridled, the free and spontaneous prayer adopts the form of ritualistic formulas, that is, it becomes ceremonial;
5) forms, features, and functions of the pre-literature prayer
The earliest forms of prayer are related to the magic-ritualistic concept of understanding life, which is practiced for the purpose of the renewal of life at the organic level. Therefore, within this concept, we cannot talk about a (genuine) prayer, since it presupposes a genuine relationship with God as a revelation and a profound spiritual and ontological potential. Instead, here we encounter the first and primitive forms of prayer: through its oral expression, it conveys man’s non-verbal desire to defeat evil and threat lurking in everyday existence and introduce order instead. It is at this time, when the thirst for knowledge will become comprehension, a concept – as a function, not as a feeling, that the development of culture sets in;
6) semiotics of the pre-literature prayer
The discourse of prayer symbolizes man’s need for cosmization. This sign represents the need of man to anticipate himself in the world that is still unknown to him, to harmonize fear, the mystical, that, in turn, becomes sacred, transcendental, divine. Hence, prayer as a semiosis of the first speech of man comes full circle in its literary-poetic world;
7) semiotics of the prayer in Hellenic literature
The vocal-physical speech of the primitive prayer in Hellenistic literature becomes a literary discourse through an address targeting the Muses as divine entities in Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey. By the same token, this transition from oral speech to a written record marks the transition of the very addressee the prayers were intended for. While on one hand, primitive-ritualistic prayers were not addressed to no one in particular, the earliest records from the period of Hellenistic literature signify a prayer addressed not only to deities but also to the polytheistic pantheon that, in spite of its cornucopia of gods, lacks a supreme god-head, and, thus, its center is vacant. Hence, prayers are addressed to anthropomorphic gods close to people, who, still, dwell in the higher sphere placed on Olympus.
Thus the prayer form the Hellenistic period does not display features of a real prayer; rather, it is a prayer through invocation, that is, it is a crying attribute for help. The ancient Hellenes pray to preserve the ethical order of things, but their relationship to things is still at a very superficial level because they still have not developed awareness about the underlying processes but only about the external facet of the things. However, what distinguishes the poetry from the Hellenistic period from the preceding periods is not only that it already acquired its literary context but it also displays an anthropocentric dimension pertaining to the existence of man, that is, man’s initial self-awareness;
8) literary forms of prayer in the Hellenistic period
First and foremost, they belong to the forms of the sacred or priestly poetry that celebrates, invokes, glorifies, or laments a hero extolled like a god. It is noteworthy that this distinctive feature of Hellenistic literature implies that the addressee to whom prayers are referred is different, that is, they are referred to heroes;
9) sacred history bears the imprint of Jewish prayer
The prayer in Jewish literature bears a significant feature that is related to the surpassing of the concept of the mythic origin through the historical aspect. The Jewish God appears as the central authority that exercises control over the Sons of Israel. Thus, the historical is always in a correlation with the divine. Through the Jewish prayer we discover that life cannot be restored by way of magical principles but through prayers, and it comes into being not as an act focused on our reality but rather as a dialogue with God. Prayer becomes sacramental, liturgical, disciplined, semantically ingrained in the principle to be, as a personal trait of the God Yahweh;
10) prayer as a biblical-literary genre
As a literary genre, prayer can be found in psalms that attain the peak of Jewish poetry. Thus, here literary prayer lends itself to an in-depth analysis in terms of style through its most distinctive feature that is not related to meter, namely, parallelism;
11) Jesus prayer
The prayer in Christian literature represents the most integral anthropological-aesthetic genre, whose context emanates from a highly advanced and developed theological-dogmatic concept of interpretation. Prayer presupposes a personal, intimate dialogue between man and God, and its end goal is metaphysical-mystic: God’s revelation of His own dimension and existence to man. Within that context, Jesus prayer represents a tradition or the prayer of the heart, that is said through hesychasm as an inner, silent condition, so that God can talk through the heart. The name of God in prayer bears a cosmic dimension;
12) Lord’s prayer
The ultimate goal of this prayer refers to the atonement of the (sins of ) entire human race. Hence, inthe praying discourse in Christianity, prayer naturally confirms its cosmic content. The Lord’s Prayer has a practical goal: it guides man to focus on God, but at the same time to lead to one’s becoming in the likeness of God. This communicational dimension through the process of kenosis reveals prayer to be a search for a deep spiritual agent, in response to which man appropriates God Himself.
13) Prayer in Byzantine poetry – a psalmody of the soul
The Byzantine literary prayer model contains the ideologically-religious scheme of the Christian view of the world, at whose centre is the spiritual absolute of the Holy Trinity. On one hand, the prayer in Byzantine poetry represents a poetic exegesis of the Christ-centric and triadic-centric secret within the liturgical process as the liturgical poetry. On the other hand, through its didactic and stylistic qualities, the poetic prayer in this literature, that is not part of the liturgical act, does not break away from the credo of the Christian theology intended for the transfigured man.
14) Prayer genres
In the literary sense, prayer represents a metrical composition entitled Byzantine poetry. Within the opulent system of genres in Byzantine poetry, prayer is naturally incorporated as a lyric-poetical work that notwithstanding its canonized structure, lends itself to sophisticated aesthetic, theological, and literary-theoretical interpretation.
15) Alphabetical prayer
The prime aesthetical example of the literary heritage of the 10th century, this prayer contains a liturgy-related subject matter even though it displays no function. In terms of tradition, the Alphabetical prayer of Bishop Constantine represents the Slavic reflection of Byzantine poetry as regards its form, structure, poetic principles; however, at the same time, it paves the way for the Old Slavonic poetry, which purports to be a highly advanced poetic endeavour. The Alphabetical Prayer represents a pliable document on the literary-stylistic and semantic interpretation, as well as the theoretical consideration on the issue of authorship – which is individual, but not auto-expressive because the medieval poet does not consider separately his personal I on the behalf of the clerical, which is the embodiment of Christ as the poetic archetype.
Hence the monograph The Discourse of Prayer represents a delineation of one anthropo-semiotic, theoretical-hermeneutical, and literary contextual framework of the prayer text as one of the languages spoken by culture. The multilayered messages of the prayer text can be read as the pre-literature and the anthropological vestiges embracing the sign of the natural language, as well as a literary language derived in the second instance and as a meta-language in one equally proportional relation of an independently organized unit within the phenomenon of prayer.
 B. A. Uspenski, 1979, 216. see also: Б. А. Успенский. Семиотика, истории. Семиотика кулътуры (vol. 1), 1996.