The religious life of ancient Greeks and Romans was organized around their many cults. The word cult refers to a group of people and the religious activities and rituals they performed to honor a god or goddess. Gods and goddesses were believed to look after human needs, and people would pray, perform sacrifices*, and hold festivals to show their respect and to ask for help. Cults were central to events in both private and public life.

* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat

Cult Practice in Ancient Greece. Cult rituals were held in a place sacred to a god. This place was called hieron, meaning “filled with divine power.” Every Greek was expected to recognize a sacred place and to know how to behave in or near it. A sacred place could be in the middle of a city, at the top of a mountain, in a cave, or in a grove of trees. Every home had several altars dedicated to the gods. Before entering some sacred areas, a person had to be katharos, or in a state of purity suited to religious observance. People bathed themselves before entering to symbolize their readiness to participate in the sacred events and as a sign of respect for the gods. Temples were often built in sacred areas and contained a statue of the cult god. Since the god was believed to live in the temple, rituals occurred at an altar just outside.

Prayer was an important cult ritual. The Greeks would pray to attract a god’s attention and ask for help. They prayed for everything—the success of a new venture, triumph in love and war, abundant crops, children, wealth, and good fortune. Prayers were public as well as private, and often were offered at the beginning of political meetings or athletic contests. Hymns—prayers set to music—were sung to the gods. Prayers were performed in a specific order. First, the person called the god or goddess by name. Next, the person stated the reason why the god should respond. Finally, the person made his or her request.

Offerings of gifts or sacrifices to the gods often accompanied prayers. If a prayer seemed to be answered, the god received a gift. A farmer might give a portion of his crop to the god in return for a bountiful harvest, or a warrior might donate a piece of his armor to the god who helped him in battle. The area around a temple contained buildings where worshipers could leave offerings or dedications to the god.

Cults of the Family. Since the family was very important to the ancient Greeks, they honored several gods whom they believed protected the household. Every family kept statues of Zeus in the house, as well as altars to other gods such as Hygieia, the goddess of health, Tyche, the goddess of fortune, and Agathos Daimon, the god who brought good luck. Statues called hermae were placed both inside and outside the house to protect the family. Many families owned sacred objects that were passed down from generation to generation.

Rituals celebrated the important events in family life. The family announced the birth of a child by hanging an ornament on the door—an olive wreath for a boy and a ribbon of wool for a girl. During a ceremony called the Amphidromia, an adult carried the newborn baby around the hearth* to welcome the child into the family. Each stage of childhood was accompanied by certain rituals. A three-year-old boy was accepted as a member of the community with his first sip of wine given to him by his father. At age 18, boys began two years of military training, at the end of which a ceremony welcomed them as adults. Various rituals prepared girls for marriage and motherhood. Athenian girls wove a robe for the goddess Athena in the same way they would later weave clothing for their own family. Greek weddings were overseen by Zeus and Hera. The bride bathed in water from a special spring and dressed in special clothing. Friends of the couple sang hymns to the god of marriage as the bride accompanied her husband to her new household.

* hearth fireplace in the center of a house


We know about Greek prayers from literature and from inscriptions on pottery and other objects. A famous prayer comes from the Iliad by Homer. Chryses, who has lost his daughter to Agamemnon, prays to the god Apollo for the destruction of the Greeks (here called the Danaans):

Hear me, god of the silver bow, you who protect Chryse and sacred Killa and rule Tenedos with your power; if ever I built up a temple pleasing to you, if ever I burned for you fat thighs of bulls or goats, fulfill this wish for me: may the Danaans pay for my tears with your arrows.

Public Cults. Each city had a patron god who protected the city from harm. For example, Athena was the patron goddess of Athens. The city honored her at a sacred place in the center of the city—the Parthenon. Each city had such a shrine dedicated to its patron god or goddess, and held many festivals during the year to honor that deity. In Athens, seven days of each month were devoted to festivals of deities who were important to the city, such as Hera, Apollo, and Aphrodite. Major festivals, such as the Panathenaia in honor of Athena, were held only once a year. Some festivals, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, which offered special benefits after death to those who participated, occurred in secret. The participants swore never to reveal the rituals that took place.

Cults in Ancient Rome. Like the Greeks, the Romans ensured that all aspects of life, both public and private, were watched over by a god or goddess and were accompanied by some form of worship. Romans believed that, just as relations between citizens were ruled by civil law, relations between gods and humans were ruled by divine law. Rituals had to be strictly observed. If a Roman did not recite a prayer exactly right, he or she had to begin again. Roman prayers were quite repetitive, using phrases such as “my farm, lands, and fields,” which then might be uttered three times.

The Romans had three main forms of cult worship. Sacrifice was the most common. While they prayed, the Romans offered animals, wine, cakes, or other foods to the gods. A second ceremony was lustration, or purification. A shepherd might sprinkle water on his sheep to cleanse the flock of evil. Vows were the third form of cult worship. A worshiper made a promise to a god that, if his or her request was granted, special offerings would be made. Rome as a whole could make a public vow. For example, in 217 B.C., the Romans promised to sacrifice to Jupiter all animals born in the spring five years hence if the city was spared from Hannibal’s invading armies.

Priests and other religious officials presided over the major state cults of ancient Rome. The College of Priests controlled the religious calendar. Vestal Virgins, the only female priests in Rome, tended the sacred hearth of Vesta and kept its fire perpetually lit. Flamines were special priests who each served a single god. An augur observed signs to determine whether the gods approved of a course of action. In times of public emergency, the Senate could order a consultation of the Sibylline Books, which contained the revelations of ancient female prophets called Sibyls. Special priests would then interpret the books to determine the best way to remedy the bad situation or omen.

The Romans held numerous festivals during the year in honor of their gods. The most popular and joyful festival, Saturnalia, spanned several days in the middle of December. A huge banquet was held which anyone could attend. Masters waited on their servants, and people exchanged gifts of wax candles and pottery dolls.

Home Gods. The cults of private life in Rome centered on the home and household activities. Romans worshiped several “home gods” who preserved the health and well-being of the members of the household. They honored Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, by placing food on a clean plate and tossing it into the fire. The Penates, the spirits of the pantry, received offerings of sacred wine at mealtime. A member of the household leaving on a journey would pray to the Lares, who were spirits of the farmland and the ancestors buried in it. The Lares and Penates were represented by small statues, often placed in a niche inside the house, and were honored at all family festivals. (See also Afterlife; Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman.)

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