Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part II: Practice

Last week, we looked at how the principle of knowledge (rather than morality or belief) animated the religious practice of historical polytheistic religions. This week, we quite literally put that knowledge into practice, discussing the mechanics of how the rituals and practices actually work.

As before, I want to lead with the caveat that I am most familiar with Greek and Roman religion, so what I am going to outline will be most true for them. I am particularly interested by the degree to which this system seems familiar or unfamiliar to any readers who practice modern polytheistic religions like Hinduism or Shintoism. If that’s you, leave a comment!

With that out of the way, all that’s left is to do is ritually clean ourselves, don our toga and veil our heads, stage our ritual procession, conduct our offerings of incense and pour out a wine libation (a poured liquid offering), say our prayer, wash our hands again and then get on with it (those are, as a side note, real steps before an actual Roman sacrificial ceremony; it is not an exhaustive list).

Working Religion

I want to start with a key observation, without which much of the rest of this will not make much sense: rituals are supposed to be effective. Let me explain what that means.

We tend to have an almost anthropological view of rituals, even ones we still practice: we see them in terms of their social function or psychological impact. Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (the Sci-fi miniseries; I can’t find the quote in the text, but then it’s a lot of text) put it wonderfully, “Ritual is the whip by which men are enlightened.” That is, ritual’s primary effect is the change that takes place in our minds, rather than in the spiritual world. This is the same line of thinking whereby a Church service is justified because it “creates a sense of community” or “brings believers together.” We view rituals often like plays or concerts, experiences without any broader consequences beyond the experience of participation or viewing itself.

This is not how polytheism (ancient or modern) works (indeed, it is not how most modern Christianity works: the sacraments are supposed to be spiritually effective; that is, if properly carried out, they do things beyond just making us feel better. You can see this articulated clearly in some traditional prayers, like the Prayer of Humble Access or Luther’s Flood Prayer).

Instead, religious rituals are meant to have (and will have, so the believer believes, if everything is done properly) real effects in both the spiritual world and the physical world. That is, your ritual will first effect a change in the god (making them better disposed to you) and second that will effect a change in the physical world we inhabit (as the god’s power is deployed in your favor).

But to reiterate, because this is key: the purpose of ritual (in ancient, polytheistic religious systems) is to produce a concrete, earthly result. It is not to improve our mood or morals, but to make crops grow, rain fall, armies win battles, business deals turn out well, ships sail, winds blow. While some rituals in these religions do concern themselves with the afterlife or other seemingly purely spiritual concerns (the lines between earthly and spiritual in those cases are – as we’ll see, somewhat blurrier in these religions than we often think them to be now), the great majority of rituals are squarely focused on what is happening around us, and are performed because they do something.

Coming up with good pictures for abstract concepts like this is hard, so here is an ancient Egyptian (c. 1900 B.C.) sculpture of a cat, via Wikipedia.

This is the practical side of practical knowledge; the ritual in polytheistic religion does not (usually) alter you in some way – it alters the world (spiritual and physical) around you in some way. Consequently, ritual is employed as a tool – this problem is solved by a wrench, that problem by a hammer, and this other problem by a ritual. Some rituals are preventative maintenance (say, we regularly observe this ritual so this god is always well disposed to us, so that they do X, Y, and Z on the regular), others are a response to crisis, but they are all tools to shape the world (again, physical and spiritual) around us. If a ritual carries a moral duty, it is only because (we’ll get to this a bit more later) other people in your community are counting on you to do it; it is a moral duty the same way that, as an accountant, not embezzling money is a moral duty. Failure lets other people (not yourself and not even really the gods) down.

I want to stress that these rituals are practical solutions to everyday problems. We focus a lot on the big rituals carried out by ancient states (in part because these tend to be rituals for the ‘big’ gods that we find in mythology), but the great majority of religious activity were small rituals for smaller concerns. A religious festival to encourage the harvest, a small sacrifice for a loved one who got better after being sick, a ritual for safe childbirth (always a dangerous thing before modern medicine) and so on. We’ll talk more about many of these ‘small’ gods a little later in this series, but I want to stress here that, as tools, religious rituals were a lot more like hammers and wrenches than plasma cutters or nuclear reactors: these were things available to common folk and available for common concerns.

As you may guess, just as a hammer and a wrench do not very much care if you think the ‘right things’ about hammers and wrenches, so the ritual does not care if you ‘believe’ in it, or have the ‘correct’ doctrine of it, so long as – like the wrench and the hammer – you use the tool properly. But we’ll come back to this idea (fancy term: orthopraxy) in a moment. First, let’s take our fancy ritual, open up the hood and look at the engine so we can see how it works.

Do Ut Des

Do ut des is Latin and it means, “I give, so that you might give.” A working car has many parts, but only one engine: everything else (the wheels, the transmission, the radiator) is there to facilitate the engine, which generates the power. In the same way, a polytheistic ritual has many parts, but only one engine. All of the smaller parts are important – your car will not run long without a radiator or at all without wheels – but it is the engine that provides the power.

This interaction – I give, so that you might give – is the engine of the ritual. Now, I don’t want you to get too wrapped up in the tense of that Latin phrase: the order is fluid. I might promise to give tomorrow if the god gives today (that’s a form of vow), or I might promise to give today if the god gives tomorrow, or I even give today for something the god did for me last week, unasked for, just to make sure we’re square. So my giving and the gods giving, either can be in the past, present or future. The tense is negotiable.

The key here is the concept of exchange. The core of religious practice is thus a sort of bargain, where the human offers or promises something and (hopefully) the god responds in kind, in order to effect a specific outcome on the world.

(For those following along with a Christian background, you may note that this is a core difference that influences both belief and practice: Christian doctrine holds that true exchange with God is fundamentally impossible, since the salvation offered by Christianity is a free gift of grace, not an earned – or earnable – thing.)

From the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, a sacrifice to the goddess Diana, in which the goddess herself (with a deer) is present to receive the offering.

This has a few implications: one is that ritual is not taken to no purpose. Pliny the Elder quips that “Of course, sacrifice without prayer is useless” (NH 28.3) in the midst of a truly excellent passage if you want to understand ancient religions (we’ll come back to part of it). What he means is that the sacrifice or ritual doesn’t do any good unless you are clear on what the exchange or bargain is – laying down the terms of contract is what the prayer is for; the prayer is the request, a usage we retain in some old-timey English (as with the word ‘prithee’ short for “I pray thee” meaning “I ask you). There’s no point in setting up the bargain and putting up the down-payment if you don’t specify what it is you want and exactly how you’d like to get it.

Now, within this exchange formula there is one notable quirk: it is up to the god if they accept or reject the offer. We’ll get to all of the ritual aspects in a moment, but they mostly hover around this principle: you do the ritual very carefully because you want to exactly replicate the formulas which had led to the god accepting the bargain in the past. We’ll get to taking omens in a later post, but often the sacrifice itself has a mechanism (like examining the organs of the slain animal in animal sacrifice) to determine if the sacrifice was accepted or not.

Of course, the humans here must have something on offer for this all to work. Appropriate sacrifices and offerings vary significantly from one religious system to the next, although there are some interesting commonalities. Food animals are common sacrifices, typically with some justification that it is mostly the inedible parts of the animal which are reserved to the god, while the edible parts are shared by the worshipers. Objects may also be sacrificed; for instance, Greeks and Romans place weapons (thanks for me surviving the battle!) in temples, while Gauls seem to have deposited them in bodies of water and bogs.

(As a terminology note: we typically call a living thing killed and given to the gods a sacrificial victim, while objects are votive offerings. All of these terms have useful Latin roots: the word ‘victim’ – which now means anyone who suffers something – originally meant only the animal used in a sacrifice as the Latin victima; the assistant in a sacrifice who handled the animal was the victimarius. Sacrifice comes from the Latin sacrificium, with the literal meaning of ‘the thing made sacred,’ since the sacrificed thing becomes sacer (sacred) as it now belongs to a god, a concept we’ll link back to later. A votivus in Latin is an object promised as part of a vow, often deposited in a temple or sanctuary; such an item, once handed over, belonged to the god and was also sacer.)

There is some concern for the place and directionality of the gods in question. Sacrifices for gods that live above are often burnt so that the smoke wafts up to where the gods are (you see this in Greek and Roman practice, as well in Mesopotamian religion, e.g. in Atrahasis, where the gods ‘gather like flies’ about a sacrifice; it seems worth noting that in Temple Judaism, YHWH (generally thought to dwell ‘up’) gets burnt offerings too), while sacrifices to gods in the earth (often gods of death) often go down, through things like libations (a sacrifice of liquid poured out).

Cuneiform tablets (written in Akkadian) containing the Atrahasis poem. A version of this poem also appears in some version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Atrahasis myth seems to date originally to the 18th or 17th centuries B.C. and tells a version of the flood myth. You can find a good translation of it, along with its parallel in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in Stephanie Dailey’s Myths from Mesopotamia (1998)

There is also concern for the right animals and the time of day. Most gods receive ritual during the day, but there are variations – Roman underworld and childbirth deities (oddly connected) seem to have received sacrifices by night. Different animals might be offered, in accordance with what the god preferred, the scale of the request, and the scale of the god. Big gods, like Jupiter, tend to demand prestige, high value animals (Jupiter’s normal sacrifice in Rome was a white ox). The color of the animal would also matter – in Roman practice, while the gods above typically received white colored victims, the gods below (the di inferi but also the di Manes, who we’ll talk about in a later post) darkly colored animals. That knowledge we talked about was important in knowing what to sacrifice and how.

Now, why do the gods want these things? That differs, religion to religion. In some polytheistic systems, it is made clear that the gods require sacrifice and might be diminished, or even perish, without it. That seems to have been true of Aztec religion, particularly sacrifices to Quetzalcoatl; it is also suggested for Mesopotamian religion in the Atrahasis where the gods become hungry and diminished when they wipe out most of humans and thus most of the sacrifices taking place. Unlike Mesopotamian gods, who can be killed, Greek and Roman gods are truly immortal – no more capable of dying than I am able to spontaneously become a potted plant – but the implication instead is that they enjoy sacrifices, possibly the taste or even simply the honor it brings them (e.g. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 310-315).

We’ll come back to this idea later, but I want to note it here: the thing being sacrificed becomes sacred. That means it doesn’t belong to people anymore, but to the god themselves. That can impose special rules for handling, depositing and storing, since the item in question doesn’t belong to you anymore – you have to be extra-special-careful with things that belong to a god. But I do want to note the basic idea here: gods can own property, including things and even land – the temple belongs not to the city but to the god, for instance. Interestingly, living things, including people can also belong to a god, but that is a topic for a later post. We’re still working on the basics here.

The helmet of Miltiades, offered at Olympia to Zeus, possibly as a votive in thanks for his victory at Marathon (490 B.C.). The helmet is inscribed with his name.

Clockwork Religion

So we have the basic rules in place: in order to achieve a concrete, earthly result, we need to offer something to the appropriate god and in exchange, they’ll use their divine power to see that things turn out our way.

But what do we offer? What do we ask for? How do we ask? This isn’t write-your-own-religion, after all: you can’t just offer whatever you feel like (or more correctly, you can, and the god’s silent disapproval will be the response). After all, if your plan is to get me to do something, and you show up at my door with awful, nasty Cherry Pepsi, you are bound to be disappointed; if you show up with some delicious Dr. Pepper, you may have better luck. That’s how people work – why would the gods be any different?

So different gods prefer different things, delivered in different ways, with different words, at different times. There are so many possible details and permutations – but this is important, it matters and you must get it right! So how can you be sure that you are offering the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, to the right god, for the right result?

And that’s where our knowledge from last week comes in. You aren’t left trying to figure this out on your own from scratch, because you can draw on the long history and memory of your community and thus perform a ritual which worked in the past, for the same sort of thing.

The thing to understand about that kind of knowledge is that it’s a form of black box tech; the practitioner doesn’t know why it works, only that it works because – as we discussed – the ritual wasn’t derived from some abstract first-principles understanding of the gods, but by trial and error. Thinking about the ritual as a form of functional, but not understood, technology can help us understand the ancient attitude towards ritual.

Let’s say we discovered a functioning alien spaceship with faster-than-light propulsion, but no aliens and no manual. We don’t understand anything about how it works. What would we do? We might try to copy the ship, but remember: we don’t know what parts are functional and what parts are just cosmetic or what does what. So we’d have to copy the ship exactly, bolt for bolt, to be sure that it would work when we turned it on.

Ritual in ancient polytheistic religions is typically treated the same way: given an unknowable, but functional system, exactitude is prized over understanding. After all, understanding why the ritual works does not help it work any better – only performing it correctly. An error in performance might offend the god, or create confusion about what effect is desired, or for whom. But an error in understanding causes no problems, so long as the ritual was performed exactly anyway. Just as it doesn’t matter what you think is happening when you, say, turn on your TV – it turns on anyway – it doesn’t matter what you think is happening in the ritual. It happens anyway.

Ritual formulas are thus often very precise about what is desired, for whom, where, when and what exactly is offered in return. They can get positively legalistic, as with the Roman declaration of a ‘Sacred Spring’ (an offering of the produce of a single spring) during the dark days of the Second Punic War (Liv. 22.10, trans. Canon Roberts):

If the commonwealth of the Romans and the Quirites [an archaic term for the Romans, which may contrast individual citizens with the community as a whole – again, we want to be very specific] be preserved, as I pray it may be, safe and sound through these present wars – to wit, the war between Rome and Carthage and the wars with the Gauls now dwelling on the hither side of the Alps – then shall the Romans and Quirites present as an offering whatever the spring shall produce from their flocks and herds, whether it be from swine or sheep or goats or cattle, and all that is not already devoted to any other deity shall be consecrated to Jupiter from such time as the senate and people shall order. Whosoever shall make an offering let him do it at whatsoever time and in whatsoever manner he will, and howsoever he offers it, it shall be accounted to be duly offered. If the animal which should have been sacrificed die, it shall be as though unconsecrated, there shall be no sin. If any man shall hurt or slay a consecrated thing unwittingly he shall not be held guilty. If a man shall have stolen any such animal, the people shall not bear the guilt, nor he from whom it was stolen. If a man offer his sacrifice unwittingly on a forbidden day, it shall be accounted to be duly offered. Whether he do so by night or day, whether he be slave or freeman, it shall be accounted to be duly offered. If any sacrifice be offered before the senate and people have ordered that it shall be done, the people shall be free and absolved from all guilt therefrom.

(Note that while this is a legal text in that it is a decree passed by the assembly, the concern that the people be free and absolved from guilt is not absolution from legal guilt – the populus Romanus, being sovereign, cannot collectively be legally guilty of anything – but from religious guilt for failure to carry out the collective oath. This is a careful and detailed contract with Jupiter to make sure that the sacrifice and its effects in winning the war aren’t voided by one oaf messing it up or what have you. This ritual and the idea of a ‘sacred spring’ had a long history in Italy – this is actually the last instance of this practice, at least that I know of. Consequently Rome did win the war, so it worked, this system is great and Jupiter is awesome, QED)

Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) offering a sacrifice, now in the Capitoline Museum, Rome.
Note the participants in the ritual as described above (shown smaller because they were less important) – Marcus is the main participant, and has his head veiled in Roman fashion (his toga is pulled up). We have two attendants, one carrying a tablet which may have the ritual invocation on it, the other playing a flute, as Pliny notes. A third man, with his shirt off, carries the axe and leads the sacrificial animal, this is the victimarius.

Moreover, it was absolutely essential that the ritual be carried out with exact correctness. As Pliny notes (same spot as before, NH 28.3), a ritual procession to a sacrifice included not only the magistrate making the sacrifice, but one attendant who carried the written formula for the ritual (so that no mistakes were made), a second whose job was to make sure the magistrate said all of the words correctly, a third who was to silence the crowd so no unfavorable omen was uttered (it wouldn’t do to have the god take an inadvertent word as an insult, or as a part of the formal request!), and a fourth playing the flute so that any words (the whispered chatter of the crowd) uttered that were not part of the ritual formula would not be heard. Pliny is quite certain that failures in this regard have in the past caused the organs of the sacrificial animal to spontaneously malform, indicating divine disapproval.

Now the exact words and actions for the rituals differs, of course, from religion to religion and culture to culture, as does what you do if something might go wrong. For the Romans, an error in the ritual formula, any error – a poorly timed cough from the crowd, a mispronounced word, a blemish on the internal organs of the sacrificial animal – no matter how slight, meant that the ritual had to be started over again from the beginning. With a new sacrifice. Hope you brought a spare.

Because the rituals can vary so widely culture to culture, I’m not going to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how exactly one goes about sacrificing to Jupiter or Zeus (but as a side note: Greek and Roman rituals are not the same because, and I want to stress this, Greeks and Romans do not have the same religion – no matter what your high school world history class taught – to the point that there are a lot of special rules in Roman religious practice for rituals imported from Greece, because – and again I want to stress this – they are different). At some point in the future, I might walk through some ritual practice for Rome, where I’m most familiar – but that’ll be its own series.

Conclusions: Orthopraxy

All of the things we’ve been talking about are summed up in a key terminology distinction: orthodoxy (a word you likely know) and orthopraxy (a word spell-check stubbornly insists does not exist, but does). Orthodoxy is “right belief” and is a very important concept for religions like Christianity which are very focused on the faith and belief one holds in their heart. By contrast, orthopraxy means “right practice.”

In ancient polytheistic religions, it is not the thought that counts, but the action (which is not to say that morality doesn’t matter at all – certain immoral actions (like murder) leave a person polluted and unable to offer any ritual correctly because they themselves are tainted). These religions are almost all orthopraxy and almost not at all interested in orthodoxy. The gods do not care what you believe, but they do care if they get paid (in sacrifices and other honors).

So to recap our key take-aways for this week:

  • Rituals, including sacrifices, vows and offerings, in polytheistic religions are intended to produce concrete, specific, and usually earthly results for the participants or their broader community.
  • They do this through the mechanism of do ut des, whereby the individual or community offers something (sacrifice, votive, etc) to the god in exchange for the given result.
  • The god can either accept that bargain (the ritual succeeds) or refuse it (the ritual fails). The humans may impose qualifications and legalism on the bargain, but of course, the god may also just refuse.
  • Finally, the rituals are performed with exactness, focusing on orthopraxy – correct ritual practice. Failure to perform any element of the ritual correctly will likely cause the ritual to fail.

In a sense, this approach treats the ritual as a machine, with certain inputs (the offerings), internal mechanisms which all must work exactly right, and certain outputs (whatever you want the god to do).

Next time: We’re going to look at another way of building knowledge into this system. How do we figure out what the gods want us to do and even what the future holds? We’ll talk about augury and haruspication, omens, prophecy and even the movement of the stars.

15 thoughts on “Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part II: Practice

  1. Love your blog, Bret; I follow it religiously. (By which I mean I sacrifice a black ox on Thursday nights in return for a new post the next day.)

    I have a couple of questions, which you might cover in later posts anyway.

    Firstly, as you have placed so much emphasis on the practical aspect of classical polytheism (title of the series, I know), was there any provision of morality? The obvious answer would be that people knew how to behave from their ancestors, but then we get into a whole chicken-and-egg argument.

    Secondly, what made the difference between societies that practiced human sacrifice a lot (like the Aztecs) and one that used it sparingly (the Romans)? I remember reading that losses in the Second Punic War also pushed the Romans to bury a handful of Celts and Greeks alive beneath the forum. If this was clearly effective after Hannibal’s defeat, why did they not practice human sacrifice more often?

    I don’t know much about any of these religions so feel free to educate me, I guess I’m looking for the inhibitions that prevented successful sacrifices spiraling out of control.

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  2. Lovely and useful explanation. How do the small gods – the herms, lares and penates, local divinities of spring and grove fit into this? They do not seem to have attracted formal sacrifices, just thanks, a flower or two and perhaps a libation. From my reading they seem to have been thought of more as friends or local inhabitants rather than powers, but I’m not an expert.

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    1. We’re getting to the small gods – things like local deities, lares and penates, etc – towards the end of the series, along with figures like heroes or the emperors, who can shade into divinity. Treating them together will – I promise – make sense.

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  3. One question: you focus on the contrast between the contractual way Ancient religion worked and the Christian idea of salvation by grace alone. But sola gratia is specifically Protestant; Catholicism holds that grace must be joined (secondarily) with good works. How big was the difference de facto in religious practice in the transition between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages?

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    1. Significant, but for complex reasons, one of the largest of which is the established clergy of the Church; Greek and Roman religion specifically were, by contrast, managed part-time by members of the aristocracy (though Mesopotamian and Egyptian religion had full-time professional priests).

      There is a substantial debate about the degree to which Greek or Roman polytheistic practices bled into Christian religious practice, particularly among the peasantry. Part of the reason it is such a debate is that the evidence is actually pretty thin, since the peasantry doesn’t tend to write to us. That’s a debate, honestly, for a different sort of specialist.

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      1. I can’t speak for Mesopotamian practice but it’s my understanding that Egyptian priesthoods were part time positions with so many months on duty and the rest off. I know priestly titles were frequently held alongside civil and even military titles.

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  4. So, speaking as a follower of Hinduism, all that you’ve written here is pretty much exactly what I’ve noticed and deduced myself from descriptions of ancient Indian religious practice.

    However, *modern* Hinduism has changed in very interesting ways due to contact with Christianity and Islam. There is still no real “orthodoxy”; no Hindu god is associated with any particular cosmology or moral demands. However, the “orthopraxy” has been significantly relaxed from earlier times; it is still important that things be done the right way, for the right god, at the right time, etc etc, but far, far less than the anal-retentive degree that it was important to the Romans. Today when we perform the puja at our home shrine, the ways in which we pray and make offerings to the gods matter far less than the subjective intentions and feelings that we get across through those prayers and offerings.

    This is because modern Hinduism significantly plays up its *devotional* aspects. Among ancient Hindus only a handful of people in society would decide to become highly devoted to a particular deity to the point of orienting their lives and identities around it. But from the 15th to the 17th centuries, waves of popular devotionalist (Bhakti) movements made this the dominant form of religious experience. Gods were increasingly understood as desiring love, loyalty, and devotion from humans in exchange for benefits and boons, not just material offerings done impeccably right. Ultimately, significant influence from Protestant Christianity under British colonialism eventually downgraded the relative importance of ritual compared to devotion, and fully modernized Hinduism.

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  5. Very interesting, and I have been enjoying the blog for some time.

    You’ve explained that rituals clearly work, because they have been done for a long time and the results are forthcoming. This all seems a bit post hoc – why didn’t this occur to people at the time? How is it that we can look at the concept and say “clearly this is circular reasoning” but, for example, the Romans were unable to?

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  6. This sounds a lot like scientific method! Trying stuff until it works, doing it the exact same way in hopes of getting the same result.

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  7. The mechanistic nature of early polytheism eventually became emotionally unsatisfactory leading to the rise of mystery cults in later antiquity through which the worshipper established a personal relationship with a God who made moral as well as ritual demands and promised salvation to the worthy. Christianity is of course a mystery religion as are the other Abrahamic religions.

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    1. I am resistant to a sort of deterministic view whereby mechanistic polytheisms must inevitably give way to more ‘satisfying’ monotheistic faiths promising personal salvation – I’m not saying this is what you are saying, just that it’s out there and your comment might be read this way. Obvious that *is* what happened in the Mediterranean, but I think representing it as a fixed law, rather than as a conditional result of historical factors.

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  8. I didn’t mean to imply that the shift was inevitable just that it occurred There were probably a lot of reasons for the rise of mystery cults, most of which were also polytheistic.

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