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Ancient Worship Practices

Discussion in 'Research' started by IrelandBeaver, Jul 7, 2014.

  1. IrelandBeaver

    IrelandBeaver Scribe

    In my current WIP, I have a number of kingdoms that practice different religions. There is a mix of polytheistic and monotheistic religions, which have a significant impact on people’s daily lives. While I have the basic tenets and the pantheons of these religions, I am stuck on how people would worship. I’m trying to stay away from modern Christian/Jewish/Muslim practices and looking more in antiquity. However, I have no idea how ancient religious ceremonies functioned. While I have some idea of worship in ancient Israel from the Bible, I cannot find much for other religions.

    Specifically, I’m wondering what these services would look like. Would services be held on specific days of the week (like the Sabbath), or would services be held everyday? How would holy books or scriptures be used? Were there particular rites for each culture? How were temples themselves be used? I don’t picture rows of pews, so where would people sit/kneel?

    I am specifically looking for information on Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse and Egyptian practices. I recently graduated and I no longer have access to my old university library and my local library does not have much information on the subject. If anyone could point me in some direction, I would greatly appreciate it.
  2. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    You're thinking in Christian terms - "services" - and assuming that worship occurred by people gathering together on a pre-determined day to worship. In ancient Greek religion at least, this wasn't generally the case. Sure, tehre were festival days - and those were nothing like weekly services - but for the main part religion was a lot more individual than that. There were no holy books of scriptures, and people wouldn't even enter the temples at all, for the main part.

    Temples were sacred spaces, and as such most people didn't have access to them. They could access the sanctuary - a usually walled area around the temple which was marked off for the god or goddess as belonging to them. These spaces were were the general public might come to worship, but they wouldn't be kneeling on the ground praying. At the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia they'd be exercising and performing athletic contests and heraldry contests, or watching those contests. They'd be watching sacrifices on the altar - which was outside the temple, not inside. Those sacrifices would usually be animals getting slaughtered - bulls for big festivals when it's Zeus, but a variety of animals were used, usually farm animals - animals with monetary value to those offering them for sacrifices. Not wild animals.

    The temples themselves were really more like massive museums, but with restricted access inside. They would hold the treasures which had been dedicated to the god or goddess - usually a collossal statue of the deity at the end of the central, east-facing space (there'd be two chambers - the east-facing usually was the larger, and more accessible space). The west-facing smaller chamber would have a big metal gate on - the kind you can see through, but secure. It would be filled with dedicated treasures, small and large, statues and whatnot. Often, though, statues would also be placed outside. At Olympia, those who cheated were made to pay for statues to be placed along the main route to the stadium.

    Festivals would be big affairs, usually involving most of the citizens of the city in question - and only citizens; outsiders were often not welcome. And that meant a Corinthian in Athens wouldn't be attending the Panathenaia. There was no united Greece at the time, each city was its own country. The Panathenaia was a big deal. Occuring every four years (if my memory serves), it was a procession up to the Acropolis, with maidens (unmarried girls of 14 or 15 from wealthy families) carrying a new dress for the wooden statue of Athene (not the ivory and gold one that was 5 metres tall created during the Periclean building programme of the middle of the fifth century BCE, but the older, smaller one made of olive wood that may well have been there hundreds of years). These girls wouldn't have been processing alone, but would be accompanied by dancers, music players, athletes, priests, priestesses, choruses made up of their peers, and all sorts.

    There were athletic contests, the winners of which recieved an amphora of oil; the amphora was painted in a particular manner, using the blackfigure style that in all else went out of fashion about 500BCE, which depicted Athene on one side and athletes on the other. Look up Panathenaic amphorae. Those were pretty impressive prizes - the amphorae themselves marked the athlete as a man of distinction, and would bring his family honour. The oil was valuable, in that sort of quantity. Olive oil was a very important substance in ancient Greece, for three different reasons: it was used in cooking; it was used as fuel in little ceramic lamps; and it was used for hygiene, applied to the skin to get into the pores and then scraped off with a bronze strigil (basically a curcle blunt blade about 4-6 inches long) to get clean. It was also produced by the very tree Athene was associated with - her statue was made of wood from that tree, and it was said in myth that when she fought over the city of Athens with Poseidon, the two eventually offered gifts to the people who lived there - Poseidon gave them a freshwater spring on the Acropolis, which is still there, and Athene an olive tree - and there was an olive tree there at the time and it is said that the tree that is now there, 2,500 years later, is the direct offspring of the tree which was there then (olive trees live forever, it could well be). Athene won, and became the city's patron, and named it after herself. So olives were very important to Athens in particular, but Greece as a whole.

    As for what individuals did on non-festival days, it was all quite individual, even private in some ways. They might pray to the gods privately, which did not involve kneeling, but rather standing and pouring a libation - pouring wine on the ground or on an altar. There were outside altars all over every sanctuary there was, and every god and goddess had a sanctuary in or near to every city, pretty much; there was no shortage of altars. They'd pour a libation before an important meal, when making a business deal, when asking for blessings before a ship set sail, and at other such important events. Someone looking for a blessing or gift would make a vow to a god saying basically "If you do X for me, I'll dedicate Y to you" - these are called votive offerings. For the rich, that usually meant things like statues of the gods in a variety of sizes, in bronze or marble, or items particularly associated with them - a tripod for Apollo, for example. For the poor, it was whatever they could manage. Little figurines and statuettes in ceramic or lead were common. I've seen examples of abecedaria dedicated as votive offerings too - bits of broken pots with the first few letters of the Greek alphabet scratched inexpertly into them, as if the forms of the letters themselves were in some manner godly or supernatural. For girls graduating to women, about to marry, they would dedicate their dolls and childhood toys and clothes to Artemis (or possibly to Persephone, I forget which).

    In terms of everyday interaction with the gods in a manner that isn't so much about dedications and worship, any oath made was sworn to Zeus; if it were broken, Zeus would be responsible for retribution, and because he could be pretty scary when angry, it was a serious thing to swear an oath by Zeus' name. People were often looking to learn about the future too - should they do X? Would investment Y pay off? And for that they asked Apollo. Dedications made, oracles consulted - or dice rolled, if you couldn't afford to consult an oracle. The most important oracle was at Delphi - a major city and the most important sanctuary in the Greek world. It was said to be founded there when Apollo released two birds from opposite ends of the Earth, and that was where they met. There was a temple to him - rebuilt time and time again, with the oldest said to have been built of wax and feathers by birds and bees, the second of gold by the gods, the third of silver, the fourth of bronze by the Homeric heroes (or something; they built one of them, at least), and it wasn't until normal humans walked the earth, not semi-divine beings, that the wooden and then stone temples we have archaeological evidence for were built. And rebuilt, after an earthquake. At Delphi, every city had a treasury - things taken from other cities, to show off their victories, or made using profits from victorious wars. There were statues in great numbers, a twining column of bronze 9 metres high commemmorating victory at Thermopylae, numerous tripods. There was a stadium and a theatre. There were inscriptions with advice on them. "Everything in moderation" was one - a core tenet of the Greek outlook on life.

    Greek religion wasn't just about praising and revering the gods, though. It was all intertwined with the supernatural - there was not one without the other. Magic was part of that - and curses too. The Greeks believed that, just as they could ask the gods to protect their ships or help them through difficult times, they could ask them to do harm to their enemies; and if not the gods, they could ask the ghosts of those who died young and violently. They wrote curses on strips of lead and buried them in tombs or put them between bricks in the houses of their rivals they sought to harm, or even took them to temples. They asked for harm against named individuals sometimes - always apelling the name wrong or backwards, beliving that doing so did harm to the bearer of the name even without the curse behind it - or against unknown adversaries. One I remember asked for Hecate to torment a thief who had stolen a ring, dedicating the stolen ring to the goddess so that the thief now stole from the goddess and not from the human.

    That's about as much as I can say off the top of my head, and as much as I have the energy to type out. I hope you find it useful.
  3. IrelandBeaver

    IrelandBeaver Scribe

    This is very helpful Chilari. There is not much information out there on worship of gods aside from “people worshiped X, Y, & Z” or “people would pray to “X for Y”. I am only familiar with Christianity and Judaism, practices hence the use of the term service. Perhaps ceremony would fit better.

    I know some people had small shrine in their homes for personal worship, but I have no idea what those were like. I thought that with large temples, people would be free to enter and leave offerings at the feet of statues, but I appear to be mistaken.

    Would you, or anyone else, have information for forms of worship in Celtic, Norse or Canaanite practice? All I can find for the Norse are "Vikings worshiped Thor". As for the Celts, I understand that they did not write down much of their religious practices, and all I can find is neopaganism. I once heard that worship for the ancient Hebrews was inspired by the worship practices of Canaanite and other Middle Eastern religions. Can anyone confirm this?
  4. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    That fact is that very few of the ancients wrote down anything about their worship practices. Anything we know about the ancient Celts was written down by the Romans and therefore isn't terribly reliable since the Romans saw the Celts as barbarians. Even in ancient Greece, there were mystery religions that we know very little about.

    The one culture you've asked about that we have a considerable amount of information about is Egypt. Being an Egypt enthusiast and having researched it extensively for my own worldbuilding, I can tell you a lot about them. And I will try to post at length about Egyptian religion sometime soon. Just now I don't have the time.
    soggymuse and IrelandBeaver like this.
  5. soggymuse

    soggymuse Dreamer

    I just did a quick google search for "ancient religious practises" (practices? I can never get that right >_<) because I'm interested in this, too, and came up with quite a few links about rituals, such as funerary rites. "Ancient religous rituals" comes up with a different set of links. It might be worth starting there?

    @Chilari - thanks for all that info. It's already sparked an idea for me. Would you happen to have any recommendations for books I could read to explore further?
  6. Nagash

    Nagash Sage

    The Celts might not the be the greatest example in this context, since they are probably the protohistoric people we know the least about - that is because celtic culture was mostly, if not exclusively, an oral one; probably more than any other for that matter, since the druidic tradition held oral transmission of knowledge in high regard. Even the old Norse left a far more visible print with very few sagas, songs and lost religious tales which were translated by Snorri Sturluson and a bunch of other icelandic christians (hence the possibility that the few things we know about viking mythology might have been disfigured for religious motives).

    Now, as Mythopoet pointed out, the ancient Egyptians did leave an awful lot about their religious belief and practices, through a vast amount of mural painting and a few actual books, such as the Book of the Dead (which, by the way, is a true wonder). I've been a proud owner of this compilation of ancient texts focussing on the pharaoh's journey in the afterlife, and have loved every read. However, the complexity of egyptian religion and tradition, and its abundant use of imagery and flourished metaphor, made it a very complicated read.
    Anyway - the fact that the Book of the Dead is one of the main pieces of knowledge we hold today about ancient Egyptian's religion, makes it very clear that Death, and the whole concept of Afterlife, where fundamental in the collective imagination. As such, I would advise you to read about the religious rite priest conducted on the pharaoh's corpse post-mortem, in order to prepare him for what came next. I'll try to gather as many information as i can and post it subsequently - my memory is a wee-bit fuzzy on this one.
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2014
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    We know quite a bit about Roman religious practices. There are whole books on the topic.

    One standard research path is to look for "daily life". Don't do this online, do it through a library search (Net for breadth, library for depth, forums for discussion). Just about every "daily life in ancient Rome" or "everyday life in the Renaissance" book will have a chapter on religion. Find the newest one you can that has a bibliography. Read the chapter, then plunder the bibliography. Rinse and repeat.
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