Written by Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The importance of rituals and temples in the ancient world are hard to clearly differentiate from worship. At first glance this might seen a little odd to the modern reader. These days, it seems perfectly normal for a disinterested secularist to wander around the great cathedrals of the world drinking in their beauty and splendor; they might even fully participate in the festive period–from caroling and dancing to donating to Goodwill.
That it’s harder to imagine this disconnect between worship and ritual in the ancient world is, in a way, quite convenient… as it’s also much harder to analyze due to a lack of source material.
That said, there are some writers who occasionally give us a glimpse into what was in men’s souls.
For example, Polybius wrote:
“The quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions… These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many… It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry”.
Here, the historian seems to confirm that the vast majority of common/uneducated Romans engaged in ritual practice with a high level of credulity and were not merely going through the motions when it came to showing devotion to the gods on days of ritual worship.
About 250 years prior to this, Socrates, as reported in Plato’s series of dialogues which make up The Last Days of Socrates, stated that the gods aren’t really the ferocious characters we portray them as and are much more akin to a post-Enlightenment Christian idea of god i.e. some form of ethereal ‘good’ or ‘love’.
Indeed, the philosopher even implies that this was a widespread belief—or at least idea—in Classical Athens. Assuming this to be true, it would seem antithetical to believe people would really sacrifice a calf to Poseidon in the hope of a safe sea voyage, but in fact did so instead out of habit or respect for ritual traditions.
Of course it’s worth noting that despite this interesting hypothesis, in 399 BC Socrates was executed for giving air to such seditious thoughts.
Regardless of what was truly believed, it does seem that, throughout human civilization, ritual has often come to supersede the purpose for which it was originally performed (again, Christmas comes to the forefront of one’s mind).
Whilst temples were often used by Greek city-states to show off their own splendor or to ‘one-up’ their neighbors (the Parthenon and the temple of Zeus at Olympia for instance), their primary religious function was as a place around which—though not actually in which—rituals took place.
In the words of Classical scholar Richard Allen Tomlinson, temples were primarily the “house of the god whose image it contained, usually placed so that at the annual festival it could watch through the open door the burning of the sacrifice at the altar which stood outside”.
Accordingly, we can state that temples’ primary function was facilitating the rite of animal sacrifice (or/and vice versa). And it is such rites—i.e., individual acts of worship or devotion—that go together to make up a ritual.
If this all feels a little bit vague and unclear then… well done, you are getting the grasp of ancient ritual perfectly – the definition of ritual amongst sociologists is hotly debated even to this day.
According to Fritz Graf (the distinguished Classicist, not the former NFL referee): “ritual is an activity whose imminent practical aim has become secondary, replaced by the aim of communication…form and meaning of ritual are determined by tradition; they are malleable according to the needs of any present situation, as long as the performers understand them as being traditional”.
Our old friend, Lack of Source Material, is problematic for one wishing to delve deeply into ritual in antiquity because, as is intuitively obvious, there was no need to chronicle the repetitive, humdrum rituals of daily life.
What was much more noteworthy was when ritual strayed from the beaten path; such instances, however, usually generate more questions than answers. Moreover, the key vehicle for acquired ritual wisdom in Greece and Rome was oral and not written tradition.
(The so-called ‘magical papyri’ uncovered in Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are commonly considered to be the exception that proves this rule.)
As already mentioned, perhaps the most important (or, at least, most dominant) rite of ancient ritual was animal sacrifice. Though it was not unknown to immolate an entire animal for the benefit of an esteemed deity, to destroy a precious beast of the field was wasteful in the extreme.
Whilst it seems the sacrifice itself – a life taken and blood spilt – was sufficient to satisfy most, an immolation of the choices cuts would likely have been enough of a respectful gesture for even the most pious observer.
Echoes of this practice still exist in mainstream modern monotheism, both literally (the process of halal sacrifice) and symbolically (Christian Eucharist).
Obviously, it would not have been expedient for an average citizen to sacrifice an animal any more precious than a chicken, so the slaying of sheep, goats and, if the occasion were grand enough, cows became a communal and festive ritual act.
Indeed, one simple reason for why so many people looked forward to days of ritual sacrifice was because of the feasting (and drinking) that would accompany it.
This is not to say that individuals of moderate or meagre wealth did not sacrifice; however, they were more likely to offer cakes, grains and fruit or to pour libations of wine, milk or oil.
Again, modern parallels abound—many devotees of Buddhism daily adorn their altars with flowers, rice, water and, increasingly, sugary soda drinks. Likewise, Catholic altars throughout Central and South America are equipped with regular contributions.
Another common, important type of ritual documented in antiquity were those to remove ‘pollution’ i.e. the invisible, though very real, consequences of the traumatic extremes of the human experience such as birth, death, murder, madness, sickness, cannibalism, incest, and blasphemy.
There is also a variety of initiation rituals that are, mostly, not only unknown, but unknowable. The most beguiling, horrific and vivid image of such a rite is rumored to be part of the cult of Mithras (a deity with many aspects in common with Jesus Christ) in which the initiate stood beneath a wooden lattice upon which a bull was sacrificed and the blood of the animal washed over them. However, this macabre baptism does not have enough corroborative evidence to be taken without a pinch of salt.
Regardless of the cause or practice of ritual in the ancient world, it is undeniable that it played a hugely significant part both in day-to-day life, and, more importantly, in the fate of how history came to be governed.
Specifically, it was manipulated by dictators and tyrants to legitimize and underpin their reign.
Indeed, it is very difficult to imagine that Augustus, the man who wrenched the façade of democracy out of the cavity of the Roman Empire could have prospered as he did without manipulating ritual so brilliantly and cynically (the funeral of Julius Caesar, the imagery on the Ara Pacis, his mausoleum, his abode on the Palatine Hill…the list seems inexhaustible).
The fact that ritual underpinned the authority of the Roman emperors is why, when Christians flouted such observances, they were not merely rejecting the gods of old, but the very authority of the supreme ruler himself.
And it was this monumental clash of religions and rituals that brought about not only the dissipation of the ultimate authority of the emperor, but an irreconcilable and irreversible revolution in the history of the European people.