Public Worship in the Graeco-Roman World


The Pantheon in 1836, by Jakob Alt / Albertina, Wikimedia Commons


Religious worship was a public affair for ancient Greeks and Romans.


By E.M. Berens

Temples

The Roman Maison Carrée temple in Nice, France / Photo by Danichou, Wikimedia Commons

In very remote times the Greeks had no shrines or sanctuaries devoted to public worship, but performed their devotions beneath the vast and boundless canopy of heaven, in the great temple of nature itself. Believing that their divinities throned above the clouds, pious worshippers naturally sought the highest available points, in order to place themselves in the closest communion possible with their gods; hence the summits of high mountains were selected for devotional purposes, and the more exalted the rank and importance of the divinity invoked, the more elevated was the site selected for his or her worship. But the inconvenience attending this mode of worship gradually suggested the idea of erecting edifices which would afford means of shelter from the inclemency of the weather.

These structures were, in the first instance, of the most simple form, and without decoration; but when, with the progress of civilization, the Greeks became a wealthy and powerful people, temples were built and adorned with the greatest splendour and magnificence, talent, labour, and wealth being lavished unsparingly on their erection and decoration; indeed so massively were they constructed, that some of them have, to a certain extent, withstood the ravages of time. The city of Athens especially contains numerous remains of these buildings of antiquity. On the Acropolis we may still behold, among other monuments of ancient art, the temple of Athene-Polias, and that of Theseus, the latter of which is the most entire ancient edifice in the world. In the island of Delos, also, are to be seen the ruins of the temples of Apollo and Artemis, both of which are in a wonderful state of preservation. These ruins are most valuable, being sufficiently complete to enable us to study, by their aid, the plan and character of the original structure.

Among the Lacedaemonians, however, we find no vestiges of these stately temples, for they were specially enjoined by a law of Lycurgus to serve the gods with as little outlay as possible. When the great lawgiver was asked the reason of this injunction, he replied that the Lacedaemonians, being a poor nation, might otherwise abstain altogether from the observance of their religious duties, and wisely added that magnificent edifices and costly sacrifices were not so pleasing to the gods, as the true piety and unfeigned devotion of their worshippers.

The most ancient temples known to us served a double purpose: they were not only consecrated to the service of the gods, but were at the same time venerable monuments in honour of the dead. Thus, for instance, the temple of Pallas-Athene, in the tower of the city of Larissa, served as the sepulchre of Acrisius, and the Acropolis at Athens received the ashes of Cecrops, founder of the city.

A temple was frequently dedicated to two or more gods, and was always built after the manner considered most acceptable to the particular divinities to whom it was consecrated; for just as trees, birds, and animals of every description were held to be sacred to certain deities, so almost every god had a form of building peculiar to himself, which was deemed more acceptable to him than any other. Thus the Doric style of architecture was sacred to Zeus, Ares, and Heracles; the Ionic to Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus; and the Corinthian to Hestia.

In the porch of the temple stood a vessel of stone or brass, containing holy water (which had been consecrated by putting into it a burning torch, taken from the altar), with which all those admitted to take part in the sacrifices were besprinkled. In the inmost recess of the sanctuary was the most holy place, into which none but the priests were suffered to enter.

Temples in the country were usually surrounded with groves of trees. The solitude of these shady retreats naturally tended to inspire the worshipper with awe and reverence, added to which the delightful shade and coolness afforded by tall leafy trees is peculiarly grateful in hot countries. Indeed so general did this custom of building temples in groves become, that all places devoted to sacred purposes, even where no trees existed, were called groves. That this practice must be of very remote antiquity is proved by the Biblical injunction, having for its object the separation of the Jews from all idolatrous practices: “Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of trees near unto the altar of the Lord thy God.”

Statues

Cecrops Pandrosos statue / Acropolis Museum

The Greeks worshipped their gods without any visible representations of them until the time of Cecrops. The most ancient of these representations consisted of square blocks of stone, upon which the name of the deity intended to be represented was engraved. The first attempts at sculpture were rude stocks, with a head at one end and a shapeless trunk at the other, tapering slightly down to the feet, which, however, were not divided, the limbs being in no way defined. But the artists of later times devoted all their genius to thesuccessful production of the highest ideals of their gods, some of which are preserved to this day, and are regarded as examples of purest art.

On a pedestal in the centre of the edifice stood the statue of the divinity to whom the temple was dedicated, surrounded by images of other gods, all of which were fenced off by rails.

Altars

The altar dedicated to Hermes, late 2nd century BC. Agora of the Competaliasts (or Hermaists) on Delos. / Photo by Zde, Wikimedia Commons

The altar in a Greek temple, which stood in the centre of the building and in front of the statue of the presiding deity, was generally of a circular form, and constructed of stone. It was customary to engrave upon it the name or distinguishing symbol of the divinity to whom it was dedicated; and it was held so sacred that if any malefactor fled to it his life was safe from his pursuers, and it was considered one of the greatest acts of sacrilege to force him from this asylum.

The most ancient altars were adorned with horns, which in former times were emblems of power and dignity, as wealth, and consequently importance, consisted among most primitive nations in flocks and herds.

In addition to those erected in places of public worship, altars were frequently raised in groves, on highways, or in the market-places of cities.

The gods of the lower world had no altars whatever, ditches or trenches being dug for the reception of the blood of the sacrifices offered to them.

Priests

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) / Creative Commons

In ancient times the priests were recognized as a special social caste, and were distinguished not only by their sacerdotal vestments, but also by their piety, wisdom, and blameless life. They were the chosen mediators between gods and men, and offered prayers and sacrifices in the name of the people, whom they also instructed as to what vows, gifts, and offerings would be most acceptable to the gods.

Every deity had a different order of priests consecrated to his worship, and in every place a high-priest was appointed, whose duty it was to superintend the rest of his order, and also to carry out the more sacred rites and religious observances.

Priests and priestesses were permitted to marry, but not a second time; some, however, voluntarily adopted a life of celibacy.

Sacrifices

Sacrifice scene on an ancient Greek vase / Creative Commons

There is no doubt that a feeling of gratitude to the gods for their protecting care, and the abundance with which they were believed to bless mankind, has induced men of all nations and in all countries to feel a desire to sacrifice to their divinities some portion of the gifts so generously lavished upon them.

Among the Greeks, sacrifices were of various kinds. They consisted of free-will offerings, propitiatory offerings, etc.

Free-will offerings were grateful acknowledgments for benefits received, and usually consisted of the first-fruits of the field, or the finest of the flocks and herds, which were required to be without spot or blemish.

Propitiatory offerings were brought with the object of appeasing the anger of the gods.

In addition to those above enumerated, sacrifices were made, either with a view of obtaining success in an enterprise about to be undertaken, or in fulfilment of a vow, or at the command of an oracle.

Every sacrifice was accompanied by salt and also by a libation, which usually consisted of wine, the cup being always filled to the brim, indicating that the offering was made without stint. When sacrificing to the infernal gods the cup containing the libation was filled with blood.

The animals offered to the Olympian divinities were white, whilst those to the gods of the lower world were black. When a man offered a special sacrifice for himself or his family it partook of the nature of his occupation; thus a shepherd brought a sheep, a vine-grower his grapes, and so forth. But in the case of public sacrifices, the supposed individuality of the deity was always consulted. For instance, to Demeter a sow was offered, because that animal is apt to root up the seed-corn; to Dionysus a goat, on account of its being destructive to vineyards, etc.

The value of offerings depended greatly upon the position of the individual; it being regarded as a contempt of the gods for a rich man to bring a sordid offering, whilst from a poor man the smallest oblation was considered acceptable.

Hecatombs consisted of a hundred animals, and were offered by entire communities, or by wealthy individuals who either desired, or had obtained some special favour from the gods.

When a sacrifice was to be offered, a fire was kindled on the altar, into which wine and frankincense were poured, in order to increase the flame. In very ancient times, the victim was laid upon the altar and burned whole; but after the time of Prometheus portions only of the shoulders, thighs, entrails, etc., were sacrificed, the remainder becoming the perquisites of the priests.

The officiating priests wore a crown composed of the leaves of the tree sacred to the deity they invoked. Thus when sacrificing to Apollo the crowns were of laurel; when to Heracles, of poplar. This practice of wearing crowns was, at a later period, adopted by the general public at banquets and other festivities.

On occasions of special solemnity the horns of the victim were overlaid with gold, and the altars decked with flowers and sacred herbs.

The mode of conducting the sacrifices was as follows: – All things being prepared, a salt cake, the sacrificial knife, and the crowns, were placed in a small basket, and carried to the sanctuary by a young maiden, whereupon the victim was conducted into the temple, frequently to the accompaniment of music. If a small animal, it was driven loose to the altar; if a large one, it was led by a long trailing rope, in order to indicate that it was not an unwilling sacrifice.

When all were assembled, the priest, after walking in solemn state round the altar, besprinkled it with a mixture of meal and holy water, after which he also besprinkled the assembled worshippers, and exhorted them to join with him in prayer. The service being ended, the priest first tasted the libation, and after causing the congregation to do the like, poured the remainder between the horns of the victim, after which frankincense was strewn upon the altar, and a portion of the meal and water poured upon the animal, which was then killed. If by any chance the victim escaped the stroke, or became in any way restless, it was regarded as an evil omen; if, on the contrary, it expired without a struggle, it was considered auspicious.

At the sacrifices to the aërial divinities music was added, whilst dances were performed round the altar, and sacred hymns sung. These hymns were generally composed in honour of the gods, and contained an account of their famous actions, their clemency and beneficence, and the gifts conferred by them on mankind. In conclusion, the gods were invoked for a continuance of their favour, and when the service was ended a feast was held.

Oracles

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835/1845), as imagined by Eugène Delacroix, c.1840 / University of Michigan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

The desire to penetrate the dark veil of futurity, and thereby to avert, if possible, threatened danger, has animated mankind in all ages of the world. Prophetic knowledge was sought by the Greeks at the mouth of oracles, whose predictions were interpreted to the people by priests, specially appointed for the purpose.

The most famous of these institutions was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which was held in general repute all over the world. People flocked from far and near to consult this wonderful mouth-piece of the gods, one month in the year being specially set apart for the purpose.

The priestess who delivered the oracles was called the Pythia, after the serpent Python, which was killed by Apollo. Having first bathed in the waters of the Castalian spring, she was conducted into the temple by the priests, and was seated on a sort of three-legged stool or table, called a tripod, which was placed over the mouth of a cave whence issued sulphurous vapours. Here she gradually became affected in a remarkable manner, and fell into an ecstatic condition, in which she uttered wild and extraordinary phrases, which were held to be the utterance of Apollo himself; these the priests interpreted to the people, but in most cases in so ambiguous a manner that the fulfilment of the prediction could not easily be disputed. During the ceremony, clouds of incense filled the temple, and hid the priestess from the view of the uninitiated, and at its conclusion she was reconducted, in a fainting condition, to her cell.

The following is a striking instance of the ambiguity of oracular predictions: – Croesus, the rich king of Lydia, before going to war with Cyrus, king of Persia, consulted an oracle as to the probable success of the expedition. The reply he received was, that if he crossed a certain river he would destroy a great empire. Interpreting the response as being favourable to his design, Croesus crossed the river, and encountered the Persian king, by whom he was entirely defeated; and his own empire being destroyed, the prediction of the oracle was said to have been fulfilled.

Soothsayers (Augurs)

An augur holding a lituus, the curved wand often used as a symbol of augury on Roman coins / Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the manifestation of the will of the gods by means of oracles, the Greeks also believed that certain men, called soothsayers, were gifted with the power of foretelling future events from dreams, from observing the flight of birds, the entrails of sacrificed animals, and even the direction of the flames and smoke from the altar, etc.

The Roman soothsayers were called augurs, and played an important part in the history of the Romans, as no enterprise was ever undertaken without first consulting them with regard to its ultimate success.

Festivals

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet, showing his interpretation of what the Saturnalia might have looked like / Wikimedia Commons

Festivals were instituted as seasons of rest, rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and also as anniversaries to commemorate events of national importance. The most ancient festivals were those held after the ingathering of the harvest or vintage, and were celebrated with rejoicings and merry-makings, which lasted many days, during which time the first-fruits of the fields were offered to the gods, accompanied by prayers and thanksgiving.

The festivals held in cities in honour of special divinities, or in commemoration of particular events, were conducted with an elaborate ceremonial. Gorgeous processions, games, chariot races, etc., were conspicuous features on these occasions, and dramatic performances, representing particular episodes in the lives of the gods and heroes, frequently took place.

We subjoin a few of the most interesting of the Greek and Roman festivals.


From The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome, by E.M. Berens (CreateSpace, 05.21.2014), published by Erenow, public open access.

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