The oldest known prayer to the Virgin Mary is often referred to in the West by its first words in Latin, “Sub tuum praesidium.” It was composed in Greek by an unknown author, and is first attested on a papyrus fragment of the 3rd century (Rylands 470). The original Greek text is as follows; the letters missing from the Rylands papyrus are in brackets.
(Ὑ)πὸ (τὴν σὴν) εὐσπλα(γχνίαν) καταφε(ύγομεν), Θεοτόκε. Τ(ὰς ἡμῶν) ἱκεσίας μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσ(ει), ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου (λύτρω)σαι ἡμᾶς, μόνη (Ἁγνή, μόν)η εὐλογ(ημένη.)
“Unto Thy compassion do we flee, o Mother of God. Despise not our supplication in difficulty, but deliver us from danger, o only pure one, only blessed.”
The standard Latin version appears to depend on a variant of this text used by the Coptic Church, and differs from the Greek in a few places.
Sub tuum præsídium confúgimus, * Sancta Dei Génitrix: nostras deprecatiónes ne despícias in necessitátibus, sed a perículis cunctis líbera nos semper, Virgo gloriósa et benedícta.
“Unto Thy protection (defense, assistance) do we flee, o Holy Mother of God. Despise not our supplications in difficulties, but always deliver us from all dangers, o glorious and blessed Virgin.”
In the Roman Rite, this is traditionally sung at Compline in the Little Office of the Virgin Mary; in the modern Liturgy of the Hours, it may be sung at the end of Compline. Many Catholics academic institutions made a practice of singing it at the beginning or end of the school day, according to their particular custom. It has been set to music by composers such as Charpentier and Mozart, and is used in many different Eastern liturgies.
Veterum Sapientia Institute is continually expanding its website with more Latin prayers, and recordings of them in Latin to help you follow along and learn them. We recently posted a video of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, and will be adding more in the near future.
(pictured below: Rylands papyrus 470; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)