Prayer among the free

Lorna J. Marshall’s Nyae Nyae !Kung: Beliefs and Rites (Harvard: Peabody Museum Monographs, 1999) is a companion volume to her 1976 work The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, and like that volume, summarizes and synthesizes the findings of numerous field workers among the Kalahari Kung from the 1950s to the present.

The following passage throws some more light on the origins of silent prayer, supporting, I think, my supposition that it is as old as prayer itself.

The !Kung have no rites in which they seek to placate the gods or to praise or worship them. They make no sacrifices, no offerings. The greatest of their rites, the Ritual Healing Dance, is the one rite that explicitly involves the gods. In this rite, when all the people come together and the healers go into trance and heal the people, the gods are confronted, not worshiped. The !Kung say that they scold the gods.

With the exception of this dance, all the !Kung’s communication with the gods is through individual prayer. !Kung society is egalitarian to the utmost. No person or class of people is set apart or above others, and there are no socially defined specialists, such as priests. Anybody may pray directly to the gods or to the other sky beings. People pray frequently and spontaneously at any time or place without assuming a special posture or observing any other formality. They speak to the gods as intimately as if they were talking to another human. Often, but not regularly, they address the great god as “father” and refer to themselves as his “children.”

People say the words of their prayers silently to themselves, or aloud as though thinking aloud, but speaking directly to the gods. They may also speak to each other so as to be overheard by the gods. When men go to look for honey, they may pray to Khwova N!a, the mother of the bees, to give them luck. Demi said, “We talk to ourselves, and she feels pity and leads us to the honey.”

The prayers seem very often to be in the form of questions that imply accusation – “Why do you do thus and so?” – but the people mean to plead mildly without displaying anger. The swearing of the healers, customary when they are in trance, does not appear in prayers. People often use the respect terms for the gods, but they also sometimes say the gods’ names aloud when they pray.

I like the idea that prayer can be as low-key as a conversation that the gods are meant to overhear. The modern cynic says “When I pray, I feel as if I am talking to myself!” The Kung says, “When I talk to myself, I feel as if I am praying!” Me too, sometimes.

Other Via Negativa posts on the Kung (!Kung) include Back to the basics and Education for healing.

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