I had someone ask about this topic today and there aren’t a whole lot of resources available online so I’m reposting this piece from The Balance of the Two Lands.
One aspect of ancient religion that many people have a difficult time understanding is the temple. We are inclined to think of temples as the ancient equivalent of the Christian church or Jewish synagogue, a place where people could gather in the presence of their god, participate in rituals, hear a sermon, discuss theological matters, socialize, etc. Ancient temples, both Greek and Egyptian, were very different from this. To begin with, they were the houses of the gods, not of men.
One of the defining characteristics of a temple was its holiness. Holiness in Greek is agnos meaning “set apart,” “distinct,” and the temple was literally a place set apart. In Greece many temples were built in remote locations such as hills, groves, or mountain peaks and in Egypt one often finds temples out in the desert or cut into cliff walls. Even when Greek temples were built within a city, there was a sacred enclosure or temenos marking the boundary between the temple land and the rest of the world. Ordinary business could not be carried out here – huge fines were levied against those who cut down the trees of the holy grove, used its well or spring for mundane purposes, or tried to pasture their animals there. (LGS 34, SIG3 986) Beyond the temenos was a forecourt that often contained small shrines or altars around which were displayed statues, large trophies (akrothinia literally “topmost of the pile”) such as shields, spears, gold or bronze tripods, or assorted spoils of war, humbler votive gifts (anathemata) and stelai or slabs of metal or stone with inscriptions testifying to the god’s prowess and past actions. In time a great many items collected here along the path leading to the inner portion of the temple. Plutarch in his Pythian Dialogues relates that a brisk business was run by tour guides who would show curious pilgrims the various sights and recount the stories attached to the peculiar monuments. Amusingly, they seem to have been no better informed at times than their descendents who do the same thing at archaeological ruins today.
In many places this was as far as the average person was permitted to go. Processions stopped here. The dances and festive competitions were carried out in view of the temple, but not actually within it. Public sacrifices were performed at large altars set up in front of the temple. But only priests and certain public officials were permitted to go further into the temple, to visit the naos or inner sanctuary where the huge cult image of the god was housed. And not even all of the priests could go this far in every temple. Special ceremonies were performed here by only the highest ranking religious authorities. Sometimes there were auxiliary buildings to store the temple’s treasury, to house pilgrims, for the performance of dramatic competitions or the enactment of certain mystery rites, for people to participate in dream incubation or other types of healing ceremonies, to consult the god’s oracle, etc. – but these were not considered part of the naos proper.
And most of the time when it wasn’t a specific festival day Greek temples were closed or manned by only a small contingency of sacred stewards called neokoroi whose job it was to ensure the upkeep of the temple lands, clean up after the sacrifices, care for the cult statue and the assorted sacred items, and perform other minor religious duties. The rest of the priests and religious functionaries spent their time at home or engaged in the activities of their polis.
Things were similar but a little different in Egypt. Like Greek temples, Egyptian ones consisted of a system of tertiary holiness. There was the temple grounds, usually a rectangular area closed off by mudbrick walls. This wall was a boundary between order and disorder, Ma’at and Isfet, with the temple serving as a fortress against chaos. Decorations on the walls were typically apotropaic, representing the King’s victories in battle and prowess in the hunt or protective deities who would ward off evil and frighten away destructive forces. Within the walls was an extended open courtyard containing priests’ quarters, small shrines, workplaces, storage facilities, slaughter yards, and sacred pools. Every Egyptian – whether priest, King, or commoner – could go this far.
Only the King and priests, however, could go beyond the courtyard, and they had to undergo extensive purifications before they could do so. This area of secondary sacredness was decorated with images of the gods, natural scenes such as pylons representing papyrus reeds or lotus flowers, walls symbolizing mountains, and a causeway which depicted the sun’s course through the heavens. Musicians, dancers, and lesser priests performed their rituals here. On festival days the image of the god was brought out, where if a commoner was lucky he might get a glimpse of the god. The next area was that of primary sacredness, and not all of the priests could come this far. A series of rooms led deep into the heart of the temple where the image of the god was kept. In Greece, the cult statue represented the god, but usually wasn’t thought of as the god, except in certain unique situations. In Egypt, however, the ba or soul of the god was brought down into the statue through the Opening of the Mouth ceremony to animate it, and the priests treated it after that like a living thing. Extensive rituals were performed on a daily basis for the statue: it was roused in the morning, bathed, dressed, and fed, entertained and given offerings throughout the day, and at night its ritual garments were taken off and it was put back to sleep. Great care was taken in all of these actions, and consequently the most extreme forms of ritual purity had to be observed by anyone who was going to come into the presence of the god. This purity was so vigorous that it could be maintained for only brief periods of time. Thus a priest’s duties were carried out for a span of 30 days or so, and then he was permitted to return to normal society until his lot was called back up. (This description summarized from Byron E. Shafer’s Temples of Ancient Egypt pg 3-7.)
From the above one might get the impression that religion in the ancient world was the preserve of a select minority, that since the average person never entered the temple of his gods he had no direct encounters with them. Furthermore, one might even wonder how a person today could practice either Greek or Egyptian religion since most of our temples have been completely obliterated or lay in ruins, the cult statues lost or tucked away as broken relics in museums, and all that we possess are fragmentary accounts of the temple procedures and specific rituals performed for the gods within them.
It is undeniable that the temples and public sacrifices carried out in them were an important expression of ancient Greco-Egyptian religion, and that it had a vital role to play within the society of the time. Thus, when Christians came to power they sought to wipe out the competition by destroying its holy places, outlawing the sacrificial system, and murdering its priests.
“No person at all, from whatever class or order of men or office …. shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place or in any city; nor shall any one by more private sacrifice worship his household lar with fire, his personal genius with wine, or his household penates by kindling lights, burning incense, or hanging wreaths on them. But if anyone dares to dedicate a victim in sacrifice or to consult the living entrails, he shall merit, as one guilty of treason, an accusation open to all and a suitable punishment.” – Laws of Theodosios 16.10.12
“Images, if any now stand in temples and shrines, which have received or do receive worship of pagans, shall be torn from their foundations, since we know that this has very often been decreed by repeated ordinance …. Altars in all places shall be destroyed and all temples within our holdings shall be dedicated to public use. The proprietors shall be forced to destroy them. It shall not be lawful at all to hold banquets in places polluted with blood in order to honor sacrilegious rites or to celebrate any sort of ritual.” – Laws of Theodosios 16.10.19
“Let no one reopen for worship or veneration the shrines that have already been closed. Let there be no return in our age to the honor formerly given to forbidden and accursed images. It is sacrilege rather than religion to wreath the unholy doors of temples, to burn pagan fires or incense on an altar, to sacrifice victims, and to pour libations of wine.” – Laws of Justinian 1.11.17
“Now I saw the residents of Philae going into their temples and worshiping a certain bird that they call ‘the falcon’ inside some kind of secret contrivance. Now it happened that after some days I came into the courtyard of the temple. The priest had left the city on business, and his two sons were performing his duties: they would take turns offering sacrifice to the idol. Now, I, Macedonius, went up to them and using deceit spoke with them. I said, ‘I would like to offer sacrifice to the god today.’ And they said to me, ‘Come and offer it’. One of them went inside and ordered that wood be laid on the altar and a fire kindled beneath it, and the two sons of the priest watched over the wood until it burned down to the coals. Meanwhile I went to where the secret contrivance was, removed the falcon, chopped off its head, and threw it upon the roaring fire. I left the temple and went away.” – Paphnutius, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt 31
“At the solicitation of Theophilus bishop of Alexandria the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithraeum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeion, and the bloody rights of the Mithraeum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeion also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Dionysos carried through the midst of the forum. The pagans of Alexandria, and especially the professors of philosophy, were unable to repress their rage at this exposure, and exceeded in revengeful ferocity their outrages on a former occasion: for with one accord, at a preconcerted signal, they rushed impetuously upon the Christians, and murdered every one they could lay hands on. The Christians also made an attempt to resist the assailants, and so the mischief was the more augmented. This desperate affray was prolonged until satiety of bloodshed put an end to it. Then it was discovered that very few of the heathens had been killed, but a great number of Christians; while the number of wounded on each side was almost innumerable. Fear then possessed the pagans on account of what was done, as they considered the emperor’s displeasure. For having done what seemed good in their own eyes, and by their bloodshed having quenched their courage, some fled in one direction, some in another, and many quitting Alexandria, dispersed themselves in various cities. Among these were the two grammarians Helladius and Ammonius, whose pupil I was in my youth at Constantinople. Helladius was said to be the priest of Jupiter, and Ammonius of Simius. Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples. These were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church; for the emperor had instructed Theophilus to distribute them for the relief of the poor. All the images were accordingly broken to pieces, except one statue of the god before mentioned, which Theophilus preserved and set up in a public place; ‘Lest,’ said he, ‘at a future time the heathens should deny that they had ever worshiped such gods.’ This action gave great umbrage to Ammonius the grammarian in particular, who to my knowledge was accustomed to say that ‘the religion of the Gentiles was grossly abused in that that single statue was not also molten, but preserved, in order to render that religion ridiculous.’ Helladius however boasted in the presence of some that he had slain in that desperate onset nine men with his own hand. Such were the doings at Alexandria at that time.” – Socrates Scholasticus Ecclesiastical History 5.16
It doesn’t take much to imagine the devastating effects that this must have had.
Historian Robert Bagnall describes the situation in the following manner:
“The end of any vital existence for most village temples stripped away the literate and respected leadership class the priesthood had long provided and no doubt eliminated to a large degree the ritual occasions that lent the village a sense of itself as a community. Even spatially it is hard to imagine that abandoned and decaying temples, whether in the center of villages or integrated on the periphery, did not depress the ability to perceive the village as something more than a collection of houses.” (Egypt in Late Antiquity pg 315)
The fourth century rhetorician Libanios witnessed this impact firsthand:
“Temples are the soul of the countryside: they mark the beginning of its settlement, and have been passed down through many generations to the men of today. In them the farming communities rest their hopes for husbands, wives, children, for their oxen and the soil they grow and plant. An estate that has suffered a temple’s deliberate demolition has lost the inspiration of the peasantry together with their hopes, for they believe that their labor will be in vain once they are robbed of the gods who direct their labors to their due end.” (Orations 30.9-10)
As did Eunapios:
“Men who had never heard of war boldly attacked stones and walls. They demolished the Serapeion!….they made war on offerings. Courageously, they gave battle to the statues until they had vanquished and robbed them. Their military tactics consisted of stealing without being seen. As they could not carry away the pavement because of the weight of the stones that could hardly be moved, when they had simultaneously overturned everything in sight, these great and valiant warriors, whose hands though rapacious, were not stained with blood, declared that they had triumphed over the gods. They gloried in their sacrilege and impiety. In these sacred places ‘monks’ were installed, those creatures who resemble men but live like pigs…. In that period anyone who wore a black robe had despotic power! In the abode and in place of the gods, henceforward worship was rendered to the skeletons of a few wretched ex-convicts, slaves who deserved the whip: the ‘martyrs’.” (Lives of the Philosophers)
It must have seemed as if the words of Hermes Trismegistos’ prophecy was about to come to pass:
“In that day will our most holy land, this land of shrines and temples, be filled with funerals and corpses. To thee, most holy Nile, I cry, to thee I foretell that which shall be; swollen with torrents of blood, thou wilt rise to the level of thy banks, and thy sacred waves will be not only stained, but utterly fouled with gore….O Egypt, Egypt, of thy religion nothing will remain but an empty tale, which thine own children in time to come will not believe; nothing will be left but graven words, and only the stones will tell of thy piety. And in that day men will be weary of life, and they will cease to think the universe worthy of reverent wonder and of worship. And so religion, the greatest of all blessings, for there is nothing, nor has been, nor ever shall be, that can be deemed a greater boon, will be threatened with destruction.” (Aesculapius 3)
And yet, it wasn’t. Greco-Egyptian religion possessed a surprising vitality. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was common to present the Christian conquest of Egypt as pretty much a foregone conclusion. Once Christians in Egypt had reached a sufficient number, the remainder turned their backs on their ancestral faith, abandoned their false idols, let the forgotten temples succumb to the desert sands, and flooded into the churches. The actual evidence however paints a very different picture.
David Frankfurter, in his monumental volume Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (pg 18-19) writes:
“If one combs through the archaeological and literary evidence from the eastern Mediterranean world, one finds that native religions continued in most areas with quite wide appeal up to and in some areas beyond the Muslim conquest….Egypt offers no different a picture of the survival of native cults….Priests record their visits and cultic services at the temple of Akoris through the fifth century and at the great Isis temple of Philae through the sixth century. Pilgrims’ inscriptions as well as the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus attest to the phenomenal success of an oracle cult at the Osiris temple of Abydos during the fourth century, only brought to a halt in 359 and then only because its archives revealed questions the emperor deemed subversive. Throughout the fifth century the temple was still popularly viewed as the dwelling place of the god Bes, and some nearby cults continued with priesthoods. Out in the Kharga and Dakhla oases the central temples of Kellis and Kysis were functioning well into the fourth century.…Eunapios, Rufinus, and Zachariah of Mytilene all describe a fairly thriving cult center within fifty kilometers of Alexandria that could only be replaced – forcibly – near the end of the fifth century.”
An anonymous Syrian merchant visiting Alexandria in the 5th century recorded:
“Here the people are eminently reverent towards the gods. At no other place are the mysteries of the gods thus celebrated as they were from ancient times through today.… for truly there we know that the gods have lived and still live….In Egypt the Worshipers offer the gods most particularly representations [historias]. And there are all sorts of sacred objects and temples decorated in every manner; they are full of sacred custodians, priests, attendants, diviners, adoratores and the best holy men. Everything is done according to custom. And thus you find the altars always illuminated with fire and full of sacrifices and incense, the altar cloths emitting divine odors as much as the aromatic-filled censers.” (Expositio totius mundi et gentium 34, 36)
We see in his account how the Greco-Egyptian religion was able to survive for another two or three centuries after the “triumph” of Christianity: personal piety and domestic worship. It didn’t matter that the major temples had been closed and that the sacrificial system had been outlawed. They continued, as they always had, to keep faith in the gods alive in their hearts and to express that faith through concrete – albeit somewhat humbler – actions.
As David Frankfurter remarked:
“Animal offerings may have constituted a most public form of individual participation in some established traditional cults.…and those members of the elite for whom public gesture was important for status would then have found themselves constricted in those places where edicts were enforceable. But from a local Egyptian perspective the edicts’ obsessive proscriptions against sacrifices would seem rather arbitrary, theoretical – occasionally hurtful and oppressive, but not catastrophic.” (pg 25)
The act of thusia or animal sacrifice had been only one part of the ancient Greco-Egyptian religion. Even at its height the average person had only tangentially participated in it. There were far more important ways that he practiced his religion. For instance, there was the procession of the god from his temple. At different times of the year the god’s image was placed on a barque which was either carried on the backs of priests or allowed to float down the Nile River on its way to visit the other temples of the gods. Throngs of people would gather along the river bank to greet the god. Priests performed rituals; important local dignitaries gave speeches; dancers, musicians, acrobats and other performers would entertain the festive crowds who had gathered to witness the appearance of the god and would follow in his train until he reached his ultimate destination.
Herodotos (2.60) gives us a first-hand account of how the average Egyptian celebrated a festival for his gods:
“When the people are on their way to Bubastis, they go by river, a great number in every boat, men and women together. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women, and the men, sing and clap their hands. As they travel by river to Bubastis, whenever they come near any other town they bring their boat near the bank; then some of the women do as I have said, while some shout mockery of the women of the town; others dance, and others stand up and lift their skirts. They do this whenever they come alongside any riverside town. But when they have reached Bubastis, they make a festival with great sacrifices, and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole year besides. It is customary for men and women (but not children) to assemble there to the number of seven hundred thousand, as the people of the place say.”
Seven hundred thousand people participating at a single festival! Even though almost none of these people would be permitted to enter the temple of Bast, to perform the secret ceremonies and make the prescribed temple offerings, they nevertheless had a vital role to play in the worship of the goddess, one that was not entirely dependent upon the temple itself.
We also find other ways that private individuals could participate in the lavish temple rites:
“Demophon to Ptolemaios, greeting. Make every effort to send me the flute-player Petoüs with both the Phrygian flutes and the rest; and if any expense is necessary, pay it and you shall recover it from me. Send me also Zenobias the effeminate with a drum and cymbals and castanets, for he is wanted by the women for the sacrifice; and let him wear as fine clothes as possible. Get the kid also from Aristion and send it to me; and if you have arrested the slave, deliver him to Semphtheus to bring to me. Send me as many cheeses as you can, a new jar, vegetables of all kinds, and some delicacies if you have any. Farewell. Put them on board with the guards who will assist in bring the boat. (Address) To Ptolemaios.” – P.Hib. I 54
“Aurelli Agathos gymnasiarch and incumbant prytanis, Hermanubammon, exegete, Didymos chief priest, and Kaprias kosmetes of Arsinoe, to Aurelli Euripas actor and Sarapas rhapsodist, greeting! Come at once, in your usual way for assisting in holiday-making, to join us in celebration of the birthday of Kronos, god most great. The performance will run from tomorrow, the 10th, for the customary number of days, and you will receive your usual pay and presents.” – P. Oxy. 1025
Nor is it strictly true, as some have maintained, that only priests could offer sacrifices to the gods.
Siegried Morenz (Ancient Egyptian Religion pg. 87) informs us that beginning in the New Kingdom small exterior shrines were set up alongside the major temples where the common people could make their offerings to the gods. These served to “accommodate the crowds of faithful who attended religious festivals, as well as individual Worshipers. For this reason it is called ‘chamber of the multitude’ (wsht ms’), rendered in Greek as epipanestastos topos ‘place of full public’.”
This tradition continued well into Roman times. According to David Frankfurter (pg 39):
“By the Roman period such traditional temples … were often supplemented locally by more ‘open’ shrines. Thus in Thebes, outside the main temple of Luxor, stands a small mud-brick shrine dedicated in the early second century to Serapis and his accompanying images and holding a large statue of Isis-Thermouthis. Although other temples were still being built or refurbished in the more traditional manner that excluded the sacred images from the eyes of devotees, the structure of the Luxor shrine allowed for devotees to be separated from this central icon of popular agricultural fertility only by front doors, which were ritually opened by a priest at certain times; and offerings might be made immediately in front of the shrine. Exterior niches and a basin provided for continual access to sacred images and to consecrated water. The shrine has parallels in the Thebaid (an Iseion at Deir el-Medina), the Delta (Ras el-Soda), and mining villages along the eastern highways (Mons Porphyrites and Mons Claudianus), altogether showing an extensive popular cult of Isis during the Roman period, in which local access to her fertilizing capacity did not always depend on festivals and processions.”
Nor did the Egyptian have to go to sacred sites to worship his gods. Siegried Morenz writes, “sacrifice could also be offered on domestic altars, and of all the gods it was Thoth, as we know, whose image was set up in private homes and who was extolled with songs of adulation.” (pg. 93)
Although these domestic shrines certainly existed earlier, they begin to proliferate especially during the New Kingdom. Some of the best preserved examples that have come down to us are from the work camps that built the great mortuary temples of the 18th Dynasty, especially in the city of Amarna. These domestic shrines were built into the walls, with folding doors that opened to reveal an image of the god and could be closed again once devotions had been performed.
If anything, we find an even stronger tradition of domestic worship in ancient Greece.
The philosopher Apollonios of Tyana could say, “Why should any honest man have need of a priest? The gods require no mediator to make them kind to him.” In support of such a statement he could provide no witness more authoritative than the preeminent poet of the Greek tradition, Homer.
For while there are priests among his Achaean warriors, most notably Khryses, on whose behalf the Greeks were cursed with plague when they humiliated the kindly old man (Iliad 1.2), the soldiers are quite capable of making their own offerings.
“When they had done praying and sprinkling the barley-meal, they drew back the heads of the victims and killed and flayed them. They cut out the thigh-bones, wrapped them round in two layers of fat, set some pieces of raw meat on the top of them, and then he laid them on the wood fire and poured wine over them, while the young men stood near him with five-pronged spits in their hands. When the thigh-bones were burned and they had tasted the inward meats, they cut the rest up small, put the pieces upon the spits, roasted them till they were done, and drew them off: then, when they had finished their work and the feast was ready, they ate it, and every man had his full share, so that all were satisfied. As soon as they had had enough to eat and drink, pages filled the mixing-bowl with wine and water and handed it round, after giving every man his drink-offering. Thus all day long the young men worshiped the god with song, hymning him and chaunting the joyous paean, and the god took pleasure in their voices.” (Iliad 1.458-469)
We also see that there was already an element of domestic worship in Greece at the time, as the poet recorded in the 17th book of the Odyssey:
“‘Do not scold me, mother,’ answered Telemachus, ‘nor vex me, seeing what a narrow escape I have had, but wash your face, change your dress, go upstairs with your maids, and promise full and sufficient hecatombs to all the gods if Zeus will only grant us our revenge upon the suitors …She heeded her son’s words, washed her face, changed her dress, and vowed full and sufficient hecatombs to all the gods if they would only vouchsafe her revenge upon the suitors.”
In fact, devotion to one’s household gods was one of the principle duties in the life of every Greek citizen.
“For you must realize, Athenians, that you would be held to have neglected the virtues which chiefly distinguish you from the rest of mankind, piety towards the gods, both those of the state and of your homes, reverence for your ancestors and ambition for your country, if this man were to escape punishment at your hands.” – Lycurgos, Against Leocrates 15
“When a person honors and respects the family relationship and the whole community of his kindred gods which share the same descent and blood, he would, correspondingly, enjoy the favor of the familial gods who will be well disposed toward his own begetting of children.” – Plato Laws 5.729c
The Greeks had numerous household gods. First, of course, was Hestia, the personification of the hearth itself.
“It is said that Hestia invented the establishment of houses, and because of this blessing she has been among almost all peoples installed in every house, receiving her share of worship and sacrifices.” – Diodoros 5.68.1
Next in importance was Zeus, who under different epithets presided over different aspects of the home’s welfare.
“The Athenians call their homes herke ‘enclosures’, hence they have a ‘Zeus Herkeios’; they install him in their homes for protection.” – Scholiast on Plato Euthydemus 302d
Zeus Ktesios protected the ktesis ‘pantry’ and Autokleides has handed down a description of the special shrine that was built to honor him:
“The figure of Zeus Ktesios should be installed in this way: take a two-handled, lidded kadiskos and garland its handles with white wool, with a fillet hanging from the right shoulder and brow, and add into it everything you find and pour in ambrosia, which is a mixture of pure water, olive oil, and all kinds of fruit.” (Quoted in Athenaios 9.473b-c)
Participation in offerings to Zeus Ktesios was the special preserve of the family. In fact, Isaeus (Orations 8.15-16) used this in a court case to prove that a plaintiff was deserving of a share in a wealthy man’s estate since they had participated in the household rites and thus should be considered as part of the family:
“When he sacrificed to Zeus Ktesios, a rite to which he was especially devoted, he never admitted slaves or free strangers; rather he performed all the rites himself, and we shared in them and joined in handling the victims, placing offerings on the altar, and performing the rest; and he prayed that we would receive health and prosperity, as was proper for a grandfather.”
This notion was held up by Aristotle in his Constitution of the Athenians 55.2:
“During the scrutiny the first question they ask is, ‘who is your father, and from which deme, who is your father’s father, who is your mother, who is your mother’s father, and from which deme?’ After this they ask whether he has an Apollon Patroos (‘of the ancestors’) and Zeus Herkeios (‘of the enclosure’) and where these shrines are.”
It may seem odd to some to find Apollon as a domestic god, yet he was very important for the household.
“They used to worship the Loxias which each person places in front of his door; they build a round altar beside it; passers-by stop and crown it with myrtle-wreaths. They call this altar Loxias Agyieus.” – Photios, Library, 535b
“Both Hekate and Apollon Agyieus (‘of the streets’) fill the roads with light, he as the Sun, during the day, she as the Moon during the night. Hence they place these images by the roads. They also call Hermes the ‘Wayside Leader’ to acknowledge how necessary his guidance is in business affairs. For this reason they also erect columns by the roadside to honor him.” – Scholiast on Plato Laws 11.914b
Hermes had a good deal to do with protecting the home. According to the scholiast on Aristophanes’ Ploutos 1153:
“‘Pivot-god’ is an epithet of Hermes in that he is placed beside doors to protect against other thieves.”
Herms, or phallic pillars with or without the face of the god adorning them, were very popular in ancient Athens. Thoukydides (6.27) writes:
“These, according to local custom, are squared off and many are at the doors of private houses and in sanctuaries.”
Hermes’ frequent partner Hekate was a popular household goddess.
“My chosen helper Hekate, who dwells in the inner chamber of my house.” – Euripides, Medea 396
“I have heard it foretold, that one day the Athenians would dispense justice in their own houses, that each citizen would have himself a little tribunal constructed in his porch similar to the altars of Hekate (Hekataion), and that there would be such before every door.” – Aristophanes, Wasps 804
“He thought fit to ask him after what manner he reverenced the gods. Clearchus answered him that he diligently sacrificed to them at proper times in every month at the new moon, crowning and adorning the statues of Hermes and Hekate, and the other sacred images which were left to us by our ancestors, and that he also honored the gods with frankincense, and sacred wafers and cakes. He likewise said, that he performed public sacrifices annually, omitting no festive day; and that in these festivals he worshiped the gods, not by slaying oxen, nor by cutting victims into fragments, but that he sacrificed whatever he might casually meet with, sedulously offering the first-fruits to the gods of all the vegetable productions of the seasons, and of all the fruits with which he was supplied. He added, that some of these he placed before the statues of the gods, but that he burnt others on their altars.” – Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food, 2.16.
Nor did this suddenly change once the Greeks left their homeland and began settling in Egypt.
“Tabatheus to Claudius Tiberianus, her brother, many greetings. Before all else I pray that you are well and make proskunema for you before the lord Soukhos.” – P. Mich. 8.473
“Sempronius to Satonila his mother and lady, very many greetings. Before everything, I pray that you are well, and at the same time I make proskunema everyday before the lord Serapis…” – P. Mich. 15.751
According to David Frankfurter:
“It is more likely that such daily devotions would take place in a home or a small street shrine than in a major temple. The word proskunema here clearly involves a combination of formal utterance, gesture, and perhaps an offering of some simplicity (since it would be produced daily.) The domestic cult offering seems to escape the papyri, which instead document sacrificial requirements for temple and festival. But a terra-cotta image of Bes in the Budapest Museum poses him between a jug and two loaves of bread, represented like the collections of offerings on classical Egyptian offering tables and offering scenes on temples…. These stelae show that domestic cults involved the setting out of offerings – bread and some liquid, much as Shenoute at one points describes standing on Gesios’ private altar, or even sweet-smelling plants, as he finds Gesios scattering in the demolished temple of Atripe. The use of such offerings would in turn imply that sacred figurines were not always relegated to niches in homes but were often set up in the context of a domestic altar, with room for offerings and their vessels, lamps and incense, and additional decoration during festival times. The terra-cotta Bes ‘jugs’ whose crudeness of manufacture points toward a context more at the ‘domestic pole’ than the ‘temple pole’ may have held sacred liquids brought home from temples during festivals.” (Pg 136-37)
The Gesios incident he references deserves to be quoted more fully:
“One day, our father Shenoute went to the city of Shmin to carry off in secrecy by night the idols in Gesios’ house … when they came to the pagans’ door, the doors of the house opened immediately one after another until they entered the place where the idols stood. So with the brothers who were with him, he picked them up, took them down to the river, smashed them in pieces and threw them into the river.” – Besa, Life of Shenoute 125-26
Not content with destroying the public temples, Christians had resorted to breaking into people’s homes, desecrating their religious items, and then bragging about it in church the following Sunday. This testifies not only to the cruelty and callousness of the Christians of this period, but also to the strength of the domestic cult.
Greco-Egyptian religion, especially during its later phases, had become increasingly a local phenomenon, with the festivals being celebrated by smaller groups, in private homes independent of the larger temple complexes. In fact, the home often came to serve as a de facto temple for the gods, and much of its symbolism and tools were appropriated in humbler forms.
The items that made up the domestic shrine are as follows.
The image of the deity: These images usually consisted of small figurines made of humble substances such as terra-cotta, other types of clay, wood, and occasionally stone. Additionally, plaques have been found as well as small stelai such as the cippi of Horus, and even paintings similar to the icons later used by Byzantine and Coptic Christians. The images were chosen carefully and communicated very different things depending on the symbols attached to them, the pose of the deity, the materials chosen, the color that they were painted, etc. David Frankfurter has conjectured:
“The sheer variety of Bes, Harpocrates, and Isis figurines implies some choice in purchasing from local craftspeople. Drawing on a study of the private acquisition of sacred images in rural India (among the Mina of Rajasthan) we might expect some of the following procedures to have taken place. A local priest often advises a family on the type of image most suitable, especially when the purchase is meant to offset some past or possible calamity; and the priest will recommend a particular form of a deity to express the power needed. Consequently the family will often purchase the image at an auspicious time, especially at a festival associated with the divinity represented and from craftspeople in the vicinity of the festival temple. Egyptian terra-cotta figures were painted; and so also in Rajasthan sacred images may well be painted to order and occasionally made to order if the craftsperson has sufficient stock. The image would then be consecrated at the temple itself, a service that would earn local priests some extra income, and then installed in a niche, a shrine structure, or some sanctified place near the home with an additional ceremony.” (Pg 140)
The image’s “home”: These images were set up in a wide variety of ways. They could be housed in niches carved in the wall, with or without doors to conceal the image when it was not a festival day. Some of them, however, were set out on a table or small altar and could be viewed at any time. Sometimes, however, a special room in the house was dedicated to the shrine, kept far to the back of the dwelling where the concerns of daily life would not intrude on the sanctity of the shrine. Other images were kept in small boxes with hinges or dioramas made to resemble a little temple. David Frankfurter (pg 141) observed:
“This kind of iconography, which was certainly not unique to the Roman period, would have maintained an explicit link between the domestic altar and the edifices of the great tradition, those temples and shrines recognizable throughout the landscape. But there is something singularly powerful about the miniature in itself as Susan Stewart has observed. It has a revelatory aspect: ‘That the world of things can open itself to reveal a secret life – indeed, to reveal a set of actions and hence a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception – is a constant daydream that the miniature presents.’ (On Longing 1993, 122-23) Thus the common image of a god emerging from his or her temple or posed in its doorway would recall and even invoke the festival appearance of the temple image, whether in the traditional procession or at the opening of a shrine’s doors. The miniature temple breaches the exclusivity of the temple sanctuary. It also takes a repeated episode of the real world and renders it in a state of perfection – perfect ritual, perfect continuity, and a merging of mythic past and performative present, transcending the real temple cult as much as the idealized processions on the temple relief.”
Lamps and incense-burners: Literally thousands of oil lamps and incense burners have come to light from all over Roman Egypt. These items were made in a wide variety of forms: we find them shaped like Bes or Isis as well as other deities; some look like animals (especially the hippopotamus and crocodile), plants (especially the papyrus and lotus) or like miniature temples and shrines. There were even some phallic lamps – my favorite being a penis with little wings attached to it. The color of the lamp was important. The Greek magical papyri are constantly warning the magician not to use a red lamp (PGM 4.3172-3208), because this color was associated with Seth-Typhon.
According to David Frankfurter, “The domestic cult often involves the lighting of lamps to symbolize continuous devotion at certain times of the week, month, or year.” (pg 37)
The Christian Shenoute (Discourses 4) rails against this practice:
“Woe to any man or woman who gives thanks to demons, saying that ‘today is the worship of Sai, or sai of the village, or sai of the home’ while burning lamps for empty things and offering incense in the name of phantoms.”
There were several ‘Festival of Lamps’ – that held for Neith (Herodotos 2:62), that held for Osiris (Herodotos 2.170) and that for Dionysos (Pausanias 7.27.3) at which a multitude of lamps were lit in the open air and kept going all night during the celebration.
Vessel: Vessels such as bowls, jugs, amphorae, and pitchers were a commonplace in the domestic cult. Assorted fluids such as water, wine, oil, and milk were kept in these for libations, purifications, and magical purposes. Water that had touched a cult image in a temple or been used in the sacred rites was thought to take on healing and apotropaic properties and thus was collected and stored for later use. The water of the Nile was considered so holy that anyone who drowned in it instantly became a god. It was said to have miraculous healing properties and promoted incredible fertility. Thus jugs of it were exported to all parts of the Roman Empire. These vessels have been found as far away as Germany, Spain, and even England. Bowls could also be used for divinatory purposes, as we see in the Greek magical papyri which have numerous operations to obtain oracles in this manner (4.154-285; 4.3209-3254).
Incense: Incense was a fundamental part of the offering rite for both Greeks and Egyptians. I have detailed the history of its use in Greek religion as well as the specific scents associated with particular deities elsewhere.
Offerings: Scholars have documented a vast array of offerings given to the Greco-Egyptian divinities. According to Gertie Englund, “Gifts to the Gods – a Necessity for the Preservation of the Cosmos and Life: Theory and Praxis” these include: “bread of different kinds; several qualities of beer of different strength; meat of … oxen and cows, … goats, gazelles, antelopes; birds of different species like geese and water fowls; fruit like dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates; vegetables especially onions, garlic, leek; honey; milk and wine; grease, oil, perfumes and incense; lamps and wicks; wax, salt,; natron; cloth; jewellery and royal insignia.”
To this list Byron Shafer, Temples of Ancient Egypt (pg 254) would add: “doves, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, melons, raisins, fresh water, flowers, clothing and adornment, and various cultic implements.”
Two of these cultic implements were vitally important: the ankh-sign and the ib-heart which were touched to the image of the god at the moment of sacrifice to symbolize the transfer of the life force from the food to the god.
There is one important distinction worth noting. While the offering ritual is fairly similar for both Greek and Egyptian deities, especially in the sphere of the domestic religion, what is done with the offerings once they have been given is very different. In Egyptian religion once the life force has been transferred from the food to the image, the food is then removed by the sacrificiant and eaten in a ritual feast, whether in the presence of the god or outside of its shrine. Egypt was a land of scarcity, and to waste food, even for religious reasons, was considered an offense against Ma’at. For the Greeks, however, once an item has been given to the gods it becomes hagnos holy in the sense of untouched, and it cannot be used for human purposes. To do so, especially to take and eat the sacrificial food, is a grave offense to the gods. Walter Burkert described Greek sacrifice as an “act of sublime wastefulness.” Generally speaking, only a portion of the animal or food was given to the god, and the rest could be consumed by the sacrificiant – though in some cases, for instance in offerings made to the underworld divinities or in times of severe stress such as rites for the aversion of wars, plagues, and droughts the whole animal was given to the gods as a burnt offering or holocaust. The Greeks also practiced a rite called theoxenia at which a feast was thrown with couches for the gods set up and a portion given to them, as for the other diners, with all feasting together, god and mortal alike. But again, the god’s portion remained untouched, even though they shared in the general festivity.
This is an important distinction to make if you are honoring both Greek and Egyptian gods. Sometimes it is permissible to bend the rules – but you should always consult the god itself before proceeding. As to how one should dispose of offerings for the Greek gods, please consult the essay “After the Smoke Clears.”
Hopefully this has given you enough to understand how Greco-Egyptian worship was carried out in the domestic sphere, and why many modern Greco-Egyptian polytheists emphasize this over the more formal temple structure that other Kemetic groups seem to favor. While there is nothing wrong with that approach, we currently possess neither temple nor priestly hierarchy, and do not feel that we are at a disadvantage for this lack. After all, true worship must always be carried out in the hearts and minds of the individual.