From a work in progress on private worship.
In describing a stroll through the city of Rome, the Christian writer Minucius tells us that his pagan friend “Caecilius, after noticing a statue (lat. simulācrum) of Serapis, moved his hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss on it with his lips, as the superstitious crowd is wont to do.” This was evidently a common, even casual act of worship, which could be performed in passing by the likeness of a deity. Similarly, according to Apuleius, “if walking past any temple”, it was a gesture of piety “to move a hand to the lips for the sake of adoration”. Hence, the architect Vitruvius suggests that, “if there are to be temples of the gods around public roads, they shall be set up such that passers-by are able to see them and make their salutations while facing them.” Apuleius also gives a more detailed description of such kisses in another place: “Struck by admiration, they moved the right hand to their mouths, first finger placed on the stretched-out thumb”. Of course, it is unlikely that every such kiss was made with two pinched fingers, and the gesture could probably take a range of forms.
Lucian attests that such kisses were not only directed at human-made images and sanctuaries, but also at the Sun, a visible god: “When [we] pray to the Sun after getting up (in the morning), […] we consider our prayer to be complete after kissing our hand.” Similarly, Plato claims that “when the Sun and Moon are rising or coming to set, […] both Greeks and barbarians [make] prostrations and kisses, during any kind of bad circumstance or good fortune.”
The Greek word translated as ‘kiss’ in the passage from Plato is proskýnēsis, which can refer to ‘kissing (kyn-) towards (pros)’ a god as described above, but also has a broader range of meanings. In fact, it is perhaps most commonly translated as ‘prostration’ (so that Plato would be using two synonymous words here), although in many instances, ‘sending a kiss’ is actually the more accurate rendering. Even if the precise form of the gesture is sometimes unclear, it is at any rate conceptually equivalent to a kiss, as is made clear by Arrhian: “Humans are kissed by those who greet them, but the divine, because it is seated somewhere above and to touch it is not licit in any case, for this reason it is honored with sending a kiss (proskýnēsis).”
In short, any god or image of a god, whether visible or hidden from sight, could be saluted and honored with a kiss from afar. Further, the gesture of proskýnēsis could be made towards the gods collectively, by “kissing towards the Earth and the Olympus of the gods”, “Earth and Heaven”, or “Earth and the gods” . Presumably, this means one kiss sent facing up to the sky, and one down to the ground. On the other hand, it was not unusual to actually bow down and kiss the Earth, and we should probably not make too sharp a distinction between kissing her and kissing one’s hand towards her.
Similarly, we know that it was not just kisses from afar that statues received. As Cicero recounts, “there is a temple of Hercules at Agrigentum, not far from the forum, that is very holy and revered among them. In it, there is a statue of Hercules himself made of bronze […] whose mouth and chin are a little worn, because in their prayers and greetings, they are wont not only to venerate but even to kiss it.” This was not always the case, of course. Some temples did not allow worshippers to enter, so that one could at best pray from the entrance. But when statues were accessible, they were touched. Lucretius for instance mentions that bronze statues’ right hands were worn at by the salutations of passers-by, perhaps also referring to kisses.
More comically, ancient Priapea, poems about the god Priapus who was represented with a large erect penis, describe women and gay men (lat. cinaedī) “giving kisses” to the phallus and even sexual acts on his statues. To what extent this reflects reality is open to speculation, but it is clear that sexual contact with statues of other deities was seen negatively. In an especially dark story, a young man infatuated with a statue of Aphrodite attains an opportunity for “amorous embraces”, but consequently kills himself.