LITANY. This word (Airama), like XITIJ (both from Xtro^cu), is used by Eusebius and Chrysostom, commonly in the plural, in a general sense, to denote a prayer or prayers of any sort, whether public or private; it is similarly employed in the law of Arcadius (Cod. Theod. xvi. tit. 5, leg. 30), which forbids heretics to hold assemblies in the city " ad litaniam faciendam." But some trace of a more technical meaning is found in the epistle (Ep. 63) of Basil to the church of Neocaesarea, in which he argues, against those who were objecting to certain innovations, that neither were " litanies " used in the time of Gregory Thaumaturgus. The nature of the recently introduced litanies, which must be assumed to have been practised at Neocaesarea in Basil's day, can only be conjectured; probably they had many points in common with the " rogationes," which, according to Sidonius Apollinaris, had been coming into occasional use in France about the beginning of the 5th century, especially when rain or fine weather was desired, and, so far as the three fast days before Ascension were concerned, were first fixed, for one particular district at least, by Mamertus or Mamercus of Vienne (A.D. c. 450) . We gather that they were penitential and intercessory prayers offered by the community while going about in procession, fasting and clothed in sackcloth. In the following century the manner of making litanies was to some extent regulated for the entire Eastern empire by one of the Novels of Justinian, which forbade their celebration without the presence of the bishops and clergy, and ordered that the crosses which were carried in procession should not be deposited elsewhere than in churches, nor be carried by any but duly appointed persons. The first synod of Orleans (A.D. 511) enjoins for all Gaul that the " litanies " before Ascension be celebrated for three days; on these days all menials are to be exempt from work, so that every one may be free to attend divine service. The diet is to be the same as in Quadragesima; clerks not observing these rogations are to be punished by the bishop. In A.D. 517 the synod of Gerunda provided for two sets of " litanies "; the first were to be observed for three days (from Thursday to Saturday) in the week after Pentecost with fasting, the second for three days from November i . The second council of Vaison (529), consisting of twelve bishops, ordered the Kyrie eleison now first introduced from the Eastern Church to be sung at matins, mass and vespers.
A synod of Paris (573) ordered litanies to be held for three days at the beginning of Lent, and the fifth synod of Toledo (636) appointed litanies to be observed throughout the kingdom for three days from December 14. The first mention of the word litany in connexion with the Roman Church goes back to the pontificate of Pelagius I. (555), but implies that the thing was at that time already old. In 590 Gregory I., moved by the pestilence which had followed an inundation, ordered a " litania septiformis," sometimes called litania major, that is to say, a sevenfold procession of clergy, laity, monks, virgins, matrons, widows, poor and children. It must not be confused with the litania septena used in church on Easter Even. He is said also to have appointed the processions or litanies of April 25 (St Mark's day), which seem to have come in the place of the ceremonies of the old Robigalia. In 747 the synod of Cloveshoe ordered the litanies or rogations to be gone about on April 25 " after the manner of the Roman Church," and on the three days before Ascension " after the manner of our ancestors." The latter are still known in the English Church as Rogation Days. Games, horse racing, junkettings were forbidden; and in the litanies the name of Augustine was to be inserted after that of Gregory. The reforming synod of Mainz in 813 ordered the major litany to be observed by all for three days in sackcloth and ashes, and barefoot. The sick only were exempted.
As regards the form of words prescribed for use in these " litanies " or " supplications," documentary evidence is defective. Sometimes it would appear that the " procession " or " litany " did nothing else but chant Kyrie eleison without variation. There is no reason to doubt that from an early period the special written litanies of the various churches all showed the common features which are now regarded as essential to a litany, in as far as they consisted of (i) invocations, (2) deprecations, (3) intercessions, (4) supplications. But in details they must have varied immensely. The offices of the Roman Catholic Church at present recognize two litanies, the " Litaniae majores " and the " Litaniae breves," which differ from one another chiefly in respect of the fulness with which details are entered upon under the heads mentioned above. It is said that in the time of Charlemagne the angels Orihel, Raguhel, Tobihel were invoked, but the names were removed by Pope Zacharias as really belonging to demons. In some medieval litanies there were special invocations of S. Fides, S. Spes, S. Charitas. The litanies, as given in the Breviary, are at present appointed to be recited on bended knee, along with the penitential psalms, in all the six week-days of Lent when ordinary service is held. Without the psalms they are said on the feast of Saint Mark and on the three rogation days. A litany is chanted in procession before mass on Holy Saturday. The " litany " or " general supplication " of the Church of England, which is appointed " to be sung or said after morning prayer upon Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and at other times when it shall be commanded by the ordinary," closely follows the " Litaniae majores " of the Breviary, the invocations of saints being of course omitted. A similar German litany will be found in the works of Luther.
In the Roman Church there are a number of special litanies peculiar to particular localities or orders, such as the " Litanies of Mary " or the "Litanies of the Sacred Name of Jesus."
There was originally a close connexion between the litany and the liturgy (q.v .) . The ninefold Kyrie eleison at the beginning of the Roman Mass is a relic of a longer litany of which a specimen may still be seen in the Stowe missal. In the Ambrosian liturgy, the threefold Kyrie eleison or Lesser Litany occurs thrice, after the Gloria in excelsis, after the gospel and at the end of Mass; and on the first five Sundays in Lent a missal litany is placed before the Oratio super populum, and on the same five Sundays in the Mozarabic rite before the epistle. In Eastern liturgies litanies are a prominent feature, as in the case of the deacon's litany at the beginning of the Missa fidelium in the Clementine liturgy, immediately before the Anaphora in the Greek liturgy of St James, etc. (F. E. W.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)