On the Meaning of Ritual Materials


Note that this is not an introduction or beginner’s guide to ritual implements, but an exploration of how they can be interpreted or ‘read’ theologically, somewhat in the manner of Porphyry, On Cult Statues.

1 Introduction

One of my favorite cuneiform texts is the compendium CBS 6060, which, almost in the manner of a dictionary, lists substances used in rituals together with a deity that they represent. For instance, we read that juniper is (or represents) Adad – at least on the authority of this compilation. We cannot remotely assume that every Mesopotamian ritual involving juniper presupposed this equation or correspondence, since juniper was one of the substances most commonly offered to all the gods. Still, such information can be immensely productive for those of us who learn ancient lore in order to put it to use today.

This productive or generative force even of relatively marginal lore is all the more important in the Greco-Roman case, where we lack both compendia of this kind and the large volume of ritual instructions that survive in cuneiform, so that contemporary practitioners are forced to define their own practices. So, I thought it would be a good idea to put together some information about how the materials and substances most commonly used in Greco-Roman rituals were perceived. Even if these perceptions do not necessarily underly ritual practice as it appears in the historical sources and the archeological evidence, they can inform our ceremonial work.

2 Temple and altar as Heaven and Earth

The philosopher Sallustius writes that “the providence of the gods, by the same token, extends everywhere, and requires only some congruity for its reception. All congruity comes about by imitation and likeness, which is why the temples imitate heaven; altars, the earth; the cult statues, life – and for this reason, they are made to look like living beings; the prayers imitate the intellective; the symbols (kharaktêres), the ineffable powers above; plants and stones, matter; and the animals that are sacrificed, the irrational life within us” (Book of Sallustius XV).

We need not accept this in its entirety, since it is is based in sectarian philosophy (specifically Neoplatonism), but at least the two initial equations would seem to hold:

Temple = Heaven
Altar = Earth

As such, the temple and the altar between them represent the whole cosmos, which is also called ‘Heaven and Earth’; and so does the temple in itself, because ‘Heaven’ alone can also refer to the entire world. Indeed, Macrobius writes that Heaven and the cosmos itself are rightly called a “temple of the god”, that is, of the creator, “so that whoever venerates them (i.e., Heaven and the celestial beings) as a temple nevertheless owes the createst worship to the creator” (Macrobius, On Scipio’s Dream 1.14.2). Every temple or household shrine (which is a miniature temple) has the same relationship to the gods.

[add image of an altar before a temple]

Altars are one of the “places through which we make expiation in the sacrifices to the gods”. Ideally, “we sacrifice to the gods below in a trench we have made, to the terrestrial gods upon the earth, and to the celestials on elevated fireplaces. This is why they are called altaria, because we raise our hands towards them when we sacrifice” (Lactatius Placidus, On the Thebaid 4.456–460). The pun that altars are named for altitude only works in Latin – the Greek being bômos –, but the tripartite distinction is found in both languages.

In the household, of course, there is usually no way to dig a pit or place offerings on the soil, so that altars (or some equivalent) must stand in for all three. This is not an innovation, as different kinds of places for offering also frequently appear interchangeably in ancient texts, and altars (in the sense of elevated platforms) were erected for terrestrial and chthonic as well as heavenly gods. As such, the altar must symbolically encompass not only itself, as something upon the Earth, but also the ground and what is under its surface.

[add image of a miniature altar before a house shrine]

In modern parlance and household practice, the shrine (miniature temple) and altar (or offering platform) are often conflated. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that many contemporary practitioners cannot make open fires the center of their worship. So, instead of casting food offerings, incense and libations all into flames, they put plates of food, incense burners and libation dishes separately onto the shrine (which thus absorbs the name of ‘altar’). But if the shrine and offering space are there to represent the whole cosmos, it should be ultimately equivalent whether we divide them in two (as Heaven and Earth) or unify them, and neither convention is better or worse than the other.

Shrine (temple) and altar = Cosmos

[separate article(s) on taxonomy of temples (Vitruvius) and altars (inferorum vero mundos; Lact. Plac.; Synonima Ciceronis; Festus; Isidore Diff.; altaria aramve focumve; Servius);
that book on spatial theory and temples]

3 Cult statues (in the widest sense)

[Work in Progress]

Dii madbaxw, Dii bwmw, dii megistw bwmw, qew bwmw
bwmon … w xrwntai ws coanw
Maximus of Tyre, Oration 2 (most material for the page on cult statues)
animals, human being even (Egypt)

4 Fire and lamps

[Work in Progress]

fire, lamp, hestia, clay, PGM and elsewhere

5 Liquid substances

[Work in Progress]

ydasin tois Axelwou
aima Bakxiou neorrutoisi dakruoisi Numfan & context
Aristaeus and honey (Porphyry – separate article?); Athena and olive oil

Wine and other alcoholic beverages; freshwater, seawater, etc.; milk (and vegetable milk); blood; honey

6 Incenses or fumigations

[Work in Progress]

De succedaneis
-anti balsamou
-anti elaiou …
animal substances too?
-anti kardamwmou
-anti kassias
-anti kinnamwmou (!)
-anti koralliou
-anti kostou
-anti krokou
-anti krokomagmatos
-anti kuminou??
-anti kufews
-anti libanou (floiou)
-anti liqou…
-anti magnhtou
-anti mandragorou
-anti melitos (lol)
-anti mhkwnos
-anti murs-
-anti nardou
-anti oinou
-anti opou
-anti oruzes (!)
-anti wwn / wou

cf. alchemical texts

divine sneezes; recognizing friends is a god etc. etc.

‚qymiatai de anti libanwtou‘
‚auth qumiatai tois qeois anti libanou‘ (cf. rosemary)

Maximus: ei dei euxesqai

Proclus on Hesiod on wine
Scholia on Apollonius? 2.1272

ampelinwn culwn h anqrakwn (PGM), anqrakas tous ampelinous (PGM), anqrakwn ampelinwn (Hipp.), twn ampelwn epitragoi x2 (Pollux), twn epitragwn tis (Dionysius),

what is panspermia/pankarpia?

mystic names of plants!


tou men Kronou sturac etc.
Paradoxographi: Hlios de eis dendron libanoforon
h smurna kai o libanwtos eis to ieron to tou hliou
Strabo: sturac krokos kostaria

food: Demeter
dynatai (kai) o karpos einai adwnis
Artemidorus – Nhreidwn zwmon

Theophrastus, On Superstition?
Priapus etc. in Porphyry
Cult statues = ?
Prayers as goddesses!

… Summary list

Temple = Heaven
Altar = Earth
Temple and altar = Heaven and Earth = Cosmos

[Work in Progress]

Incorporate this into the FAQ?

Status: under construction