Basic Worship

Category: Elements of Ritual > Fundaments of Ritual

1 Introduction

Getting into the practical side of polytheism can be difficult, partly because most of the relevant literature is written for non-practitioners, partly because both historians and pagan bloggers pursue a kind of ideal type of religious practice: elaborate, formal, ethnically separated. But there are general rules which apply to quotidian devotional practice as it is attested across most of the Greater Ancient Mediterranean.

This is an attempt to lay out such basic guidelines, which can be built upon by studying the details of a specific ancient polytheistic tradition, but which are also workable as-is more or less regardless of what gods you worship.

(Note that, at this time, not all of the links go to finished pages.)

2 Prayer

Before praying, wash your hands. (See Purification & Protection.)

You may use a prayer gesture you are familiar with (such as folded hands) or a historical gesture (such as raising hands to heaven, especially if you are outside and worship without images; see Prayer Gestures).

You may speak aloud or pray silently.

You may begin the prayer by acknowledging Hestia, or alternatively invoke Janus at the beginning and Vesta at the end of your prayer, or some further variation. This is not mandatory even in Greek or Roman worship and can be as simple as saying, “Beginning from Hestia, I pray to (etc.).”

A prayer can be declarative: “I pray to all the gods and goddesses to protect me on my journey.” It can also take the form of a direct address: “O Health, grant me a swift end to this illness!”

Prayers do not need to be more complex than this, nor keep to a strict format of any kind, although of course they can be long, complicated and formal if you like. Instead of a self-contained prayer, you can also recite or sing a hymn, which will usually conclude with a prayer (which can usually be replaced with a dfferent prayer if it is not fitting for the occasion, unless there are specific reasons not to). (See Hymns & Prayers.)

Prayers can (but absolutely do not need to) include a vow, that is, a promise to make a certain offering if the prayer is fulfilled. An example of a formal vow used at Ugarit:

“O Baal!
If you will drive the strong one from our gates,
the warrior from our walls,
a bull, O Baal, we shall dedicate,
a vow, Baal, we shall fulfil:
a male animal(?), Baal, we shall dedicate,
a propitiation we shall fulfill,
a feast, Baal, we shall prepare.
We shall go up to the sanctuary of Baal,
we shall walk in the paths of the temple of Baal.”

(KTU 1.119, in Nicolas Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, 2nd edition, 2002, pp. 421–422.)

3 Offerings

Prayer does not need to be accompanied by a physical offering to constitute worship – words, especially hymns, but also good thoughts and even silence can be offerings if given sincerely (cf. Apollonius’ and Porphyry’s Taxonomies) – but the two do often go together: “Such are my prayers; I pour these libations after them” (Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 149).

One common form of offering is a libation, a liquid offering. For a simple indoor libation, you should have some kind of cup for pouring and a bowl or dish for pouring into; these vessels do not necessarily have to be reserved for this purpose, but they do need to be cleaned (‘purified’) before use. The simplest offering is water. Discard from the bowl after what seems like an appropriate time.

Food offerings can simply be placed on a table or surface (temporarily) reserved for this purpose. Remove after an appropriate time. Instead of discarding, you may use the food yourself, unless that is inauspicious (as with offerings to the dead and gods of the underworld, at least in the Greco-Roman context). Common offerings include produce and pastries.

Burnt-offerings were common in antiquity, but can now be difficult to arrange in the absence of temples with designated altars or the like. The most elementary burnt-offering, however, has always been incense (not necessarily frankincense, but whatever you can source ethically), and this is still easy enough to arrange in a modern household. A censer can stand in for an altar, but incense sticks are also fit for purpose. (See What is Sacrifice?)

In addition to consumable offerings, you may also make permanent dedications, if you have space to keep them. This includes such things as domestic shrines, cult statuettes, altars, etc. In turn, these can be the locus for impermanent offerings, as when statues or icons of the gods are garlanded with flowers on holidays, perfumed or rubbed with salves. (See Shrines & Altars.)

4 Timing

In antiquity, festivals were mostly localized, with only a few (like the mourning of Tammuz or the Roman Saturnalia) spreading across larger regions. This means that, in the absence of a community keeping specific festivals, you are not obliged to observe a sacred calendar.

It is more important to develop a regular observance at times that are convenient and meaningful to you, be that daily or only on certain days (of the week, of the Gregorian month, of the lunar month, etc.). You can build outward from that, and incorporate historical festivals as you go.

5 The object of worship

Although some choose to worship only a single deity or a small group of them and develop a steady devotional practice with them, there is nothing negligent about praying to a deity only once, and nothing presumptuous about praying to all the gods collectively.

You do not need to be chosen, you do not have to have a “patron god”, and you do not need to have any kind of numinous encounter for your devotions to be valid.

Relatedly, generic offerings and utilitarian implements are sufficient for household worship. Selecting specific substances, astrological timings, and so on related to the deities in question is a matter of priestcraft (see Proclus, On the Priestly Art), and not every worshipper needs to be a priest.