Contents of this category


Contents of this page


1 Basic ritual practices, in accord with Hermes Trismegistus

Rituals of many kinds were so pervasive and so interwoven with ordinary life in the Ancient Mediterranean that there are few writers who attempt to give any kind of introduction or general overview of them. But this passage from al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik’s Selection of Wise Sayings (Muḫtar al-hikam), compiled in the 11th century CE and based on the writings of the pagans of Ḥarrān, of whom some may have even remained in his day, is a good approximation. Here, the institutions of the pagans are ascribed to the prophet Hermes Trismegistus:

“He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month […].

“He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering.

“The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.”

(Translation from M. David Litwa, Hermetica II, p. 305.)

If there are faults in al-Mubaššir’s description, they stem from the fact that the pagans of Ḥarrān chose to represent their religion in the image of Islam, as having set prayers and fasts, and festivals to be observed by all members. In reality, most pagan festivals were local, with only a few – such as the Noumenia (new moon) among the Greeks – being widely shared or based directly on astronomical observations. Feasts and fasts were a matter of private or civic observance, hardly of general prescription shared by all pagans. (Admittedly, the Ḥarrānians themselves may not have been aware of these things, since they were practically the sole remaining Mediterranean pagans by the time they wrote about their practices.)

There were, besides, few set prayers for general use in the manner that Judaism, Christianity or Islam have them; instead, there were only general formats for regular worship (to be adopted to the given circumstance) on the one hand, and on the other, scripts for entire rituals, which were usually very specialized or localized. (Again, this might have changed somewhat in the late period the Ḥarrānians were writing, but their books about prayer do not survive, so we cannot be sure.)

Nothing can be said against al-Mubaššir’s list of common offerings, which is appropriate at any rate for the Greco-Roman sphere, and for any people who became integrated into it, not just the people of Ḥarrān. Wine was the primary libation or drink offering for the gods. Incense, especially frankincense, was one of the most common burnt sacrifices. Flowers, grain and fruit were also commonly given, be that as garlands, burnt- or unburnt offerings, or in some other manner. Finally, animal sacrifice was the central act of worship conceptually, although some rejected it on moral grounds.

Thus, while al-Mubaššir is not describing a ritual practice that ever quite existed historically, his account is very instructive, both intellectually and practically speaking. There is hardly a more auspicious devotion to adopt for a beginning practitioner than to burn some incense and pour wine every new moon, or to make similar offering at other occasions of this kind.

2 Other ritual observances

Of course, with offerings, festivals and fasts, we have only scratched the surface of ancient ritual practices. Al-Mubaššir himself mentions purity restrictions (“ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead”), abstention from certain foods (including “pigs, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods”), as well as direction of prayer (“true south along the line of the meridian”), an eminently Islamic concern. (Again, to be clear, the rules al-Mubaššir ascribes to Hermes are not universal to paganism; for instance, it does not seem that menstruation was generally seen as ritually impure by ancient Greeks.)


Status: work in progress