|T h e R i t u a l s
o f A t h e n a
O V E R V I E W
A ritual is a particular type of formal performance in which the participants carry out a series of relatively predetermined actions and make a series of relatively standardized statements largely prescribed by custom and sanctioned by precedent. Historical evidence suggests that rituals tend to be much more stable and invariable than most human customary activity. The capacity of the participants to modify the form and content of ritual activities is usually much less than would be the case if the activities were primarily focused on political, economic, or recreational concerns.
Rituals invariably involve the carrying out of actions and the manipulation of objects that carry complex symbolic meanings that are not easily translated or understood but which are somewhat similar to the symbols inherent in art and architecture, and in myth and poetry. The meanings of such symbols, in the contexts of the cultural values and belief systems of the societies in which they occur, can be elicited by careful inquiry combined with comparison of the variety of settings in which particular symbols are used. Substances such as blood, used in rituals all over the world, invariably carry with them a whole series of complex multi-layered meanings and associations that make them powerful for the participants. What initiation rituals, like all rituals everywhere, accomplish is to give structure, order, and meaning to people's lives and to do this through periodic, formal, sequential, participatory performances associated with powerful symbols.
Greco-Roman religion and any other religion come somewhat closer to each other on the ceremonial side. A Christian, Jew or Muslim, especially one who holds to the more ancient and traditional forms of his religion, has sundry observances which in themselves have no moral value, or only a very indirect one. He sets apart one day in every seven to be devoted principally to religious exercises of prescribed type. He abstains, always or at certain seasons, from various kinds of food. He will not perform sundry actions, perfectly innocent in themselves, at certain times; thus, if he is an orthodox Jew, he will not travel or transact any business on the Sabbath. On entering his place of worship he subjects himself to certain rules regarding dress, posture and gestures.
All these things find their parallels, often close, in the Greco-Roman religion. For example, anyone wishing to handle sacred objects must first wash his hands. In antiquity, the worshipper who entered the sacred precincts on the Acropolis at Athens must leave his dog behind. Anyone praying to a celestial deity lifts his hands towards the sky; if he prays to one of the powers of the underworld, he held his hands, palm downwards, towards the ground. If he offers sacrifice, the kind of offering to be given, its type and color, the attitude in which it is to be held, and many other details are prescribed more or less minutely. If he decks the shrine of a deity with wreaths, a very common form of offering, not all plants, however ornamental, are allowable; in antiquity, for example, at Thebes no ivy might enter the temple of Aphrodite. A festal day recurring at short intervals, like the Christian Sunday, is no part of his calendar, but other festivals are common enough and occupy no small part of the year. They attach themselves for the most part to the rhythm of the seasons.
But perhaps the greatest difference between Greco-Roman religion and the more common cults is that the latter are exclusively transcendental, holding out to their adherents hopes, not of prosperity in this life, but of future and eternal happiness. They have indeed their connexions with everyday routine, witness the various ceremonies such as prayer for rain or fine weather, for a blessing on some public or private undertaking, and the like; but even here, in the formulas used at the great crises of life (birth, marriage, sickness, death) the emphasis is placed not on material but on immaterial things.
In the Greco-Roman religion it is not so, the emphasis is placed not only on immaterial and transcendental things but also on material ones. For instance: a baby is put through a ceremonial corresponding in some measure to baptism. There is the idea of ridding it of spiritual ills, (not corresponding to original sin), and giving it a new spiritual strength and purity, as much as the child is being cleansed, by material means. Also, it is ceremonially brought into contact with the family to which it henceforth belongs, and thus make a proper object for all the care which a young child needs.
Ceremonies reminiscent of present day harvest festivals were very common in Greece and Rome, but here again, it is quite easy to see that their object was to set going the beneficent process of life as well as the intention of continuing fertility of the land. To bury the dead was an act of piety incumbent upon all, alike for friend and foe, kinsman an stranger, only the vilest criminals being refused formal sepulture; the reason being that the dead belong to another world with which the living, and the Gods of the living, can not have contact, and the sooner they are sent to their own place, the better for the quiet of those who depart and for those left behind, for a restless, houseless ghost is formidable.
Being thus as spiritual as material in most of its objects, Greco-Roman religion is decidedly a thing of every day. The Gods are not confined their temples or to their heaven or nether realm, but are in the streets and houses of the people. Every hearth-fire is sacred; Hestia is the name alike of the place at which the fire is lit and of the Goddess who governs it. Before the house generally stood a little shrine, perhaps of Apollo of the Roads (Agyieus) or of Hermes, patron all wayfarers and bringer of luck, sometimes of Hekate, not infrequently of a héros, or powerful and well-disposed genius. In the house itself, the store-room was not complete without a large jar, containing portions of various foodstuffs, which was consecrated to Zeus Ktesios, the divine guardian of the family's possessions, while Zeus Herkeios (He of the garth) watched over the courtyard. The blacksmith was the votary of Hephaestus, the herdsman adored Pan, Apollo Nomios (Him of the pastures) and the Nymphs, the farmer a multiplicity of deities, chief of whom was Demeter, the Spelt-Mother, the sailor others again, especially Poseidon.
The great ceremonies in honor of the Gods, at their own official residences, the temples and other shrines, might be comparatively rare; but for everyday happenings, the Gods are about everyone's path and may be invoked at any moment, to confirm an oath, avert evil, heal sickness, or bless all manner of actions. There is a certain etiquette in dealing with them, as is natural, considering their superiority to mankind, but it is simple for the most part, and connotes no very profound awe, still less servility. A worshiper may say that he reverences or tends this or that God, but very seldom that he is his slave; that is an oriental expression.
All the Gods show their powers and occasionally manifest their presence in visions to specially favored worshippers in places where the ordinary man or woman commonly resorts for business or pleasure, in the houses where people live and the fields or workshops where they earn their bread. They are members, however exalted, of the same communities, and so relations with them are inevitable and it remains only to know what sort of relations they prefer, with what words and actions they should be approached, what manner of gifts pleased them best, and what displeased them and so should be avoided in dealing with them. For man has something to give in return for divine favors because they welcome human gifts and human honors.
Copyright ©1998-1999 Roy George