I’ve argued previously that contemporary polytheists need to critically evaluate the literary sources that inform and shape our traditions, beliefs and practices. As a continuation of that I maintain that primacy should be given to first-hand accounts of those engaged in the worship of the Gods and their contemporaries over the analysis of outsider academics and the folks who love to quote them devoid of context or provide garbled and often inaccurate paraphrases of this work in support of their own weird notions and agendas. Not only do we get a more accurate, unfiltered sense of how these diverse expressions of piety were carried out – often with very concrete details that bring it all to life for us, conjuring a multitude of phantom sights, sounds, and scents in the theater of our minds. They also provide models for how we can scale our own practices up or down, as our circumstances require. Here are a selection of quotes, drawn from all levels of ancient society and covering a span of more than a thousand years. And note that this is just a tiny fraction of the evidence we have available to us. You can find more at my other sites:
Now, let’s learn how the ancients worshiped their Gods!
Didascalia Apostolorum 13
Pagans, when they daily rise from their sleep, go in morning to worship and minister to their idols; and before all their works and undertakings they go first and worship their idols. Neither at their festivals and their fairs are they wanting, but are constant in assembling – not only those who live close by, but many travel from a great distance to attend such assemblies and dramatic spectacles.
Arrian, Anabasis 7.25.6
Even though Alexander was seriously ill he refused to neglect his religious duties and offered up the appointed sacrifices. Afterwards he had to be carried from the garden back into the palace, and could not meet with his generals who had been waiting outside the door for him. He hardly recognized the men and could not speak, his illness being so extreme.
Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum 11
The mother of Galerius, a woman exceedingly superstitious, was a votary of the Gods of the mountains. Being of such a character she made sacrifices almost every day, and she feasted her servants on the meat offered to idols.
Homer, Iliad 1.458-469
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.
Plutarch, Sayings of the Kings and Commanders 179e
As Alexander was sacrificing to the Gods liberally, and often offered frankincense, Leonidas his tutor standing by said, ‘O son, thus generously will you sacrifice, when you have conquered the country that bears frankincense.’ And when he had conquered it, he sent him this letter: ‘I have sent you an hundred talents of frankincense and cassia, that hereafter you may not be niggardly towards the Gods, who have rewarded my piety with rulership over the country in which perfumes grow.’
Servius, Commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid 2.116
In sacrifice likenesses are accepted for realities. Hence, when animals which are difficult to find must be sacrificed they are made of bread or of wax and are accepted as the real victims.
Julian the Egyptian, Greek Anthology 6.68.5-6
Accept, O Hermes, with the reed pens also the ink bottle by which eternity guards for those who will come the voice of those who have gone before.
Plato, Laws 12.955e
The land and the household hearth are the most holy places for men to honor the Gods.
Sarapous invites you to dine at his house on the occasion of the offering to Our Lady Isis, tomorrow, namely the 29th, beginning at the 9th hour.
Epiphanius, De Fides 12.1-4
If I described the orgies of Memphis and Heliopolis, where the tambourine and the flute capture hearts, and the dancing girls, and the triennial festivals of Batheia and Menouthis where women abandon their modesty and their customary state, to what verbal pretensions and to what drawn-out style should I resort to express the number that is truly inexpressible? If even I were to make an extraordinary effort I would not reach the end of this enumeration – as it is said, ‘young girls innumerable!’ The sancturaries of Sais, of Pelusis, of Boubastis, and of Antinoe; the mysteries there, those of Pharbetos, those in honor of the ram of Mendes, as well as those in Bousiris, all those in Sebennytos, and in Diopolis; ceremonies performed just as much in the name of Seth, that is, Typhon, as the one for Tithrambos, the indigenized Hekate; other sacrifice to Senephty, others to Thermouthis, others to Isis.
Richard of St.-Victor, Sermones centum 177.1036
What wickedness takes place during this feast; fortune-tellings, divinations, deceptions and feigned madnesses. On this day, having been seized up by the furies of their bacchant-like ravings and having been inflamed by the fires of diabolical instigation, they flock together to the church and profane the house of God with vain and foolish rhythmic poetry in which sin is not wanting but by all means present, and with evil sayings, laughing and cacophony they disrupt the priest and the whole congregation applauds for the people love these things.
Juvenal, Satires 6.522-41
In winter she will go down to the river in the morning, break the ice, and plunge three times into the Tiber, dipping her trembling head even in its whirling waters, and crawling out thence naked and shivering, she will creep with bleeding knees right across the field of Tarquin the Proud. If the white Io shall so order, she will journey to the confines of Egypt, and fetch water got from hot Meroe with which to sprinkle the Temple of Isis which stands hard by the ancient sheepfold. For she believes that the command was given by the voice of the Goddess herself–a pretty kind of mind and spirit for the Gods to have converse with by night! Hence the chief and highest place of honour is awarded to Anubis, who, with his linen-clad and bald crew, mocks at the weeping of the people as he runs along. He it is that obtains pardon for wives who break the law of purity on days that should be kept holy, and exacts huge penalties when the coverlet has been profaned, or when the silver serpent has been seen to nod his head. His tears and carefully-studied mutterings make sure that Osiris will not refuse a pardon for the fault, bribed, no doubt, by a fat goose and a slice of sacrificial cake.
Theophrastos, Characters 21.7
When he has sacrificed an ox he nails up its skull facing his front door and wreathes it with large garlands, so that people coming in will see that he’s sacrificed an ox.
Hippokrates, On the Sacred Disease 6.364
We ourselves both affix boundaries to sanctuaries and the sacred precincts of the Gods in order that no one may cross them unless he is pure and, upon entering, sprinkle ourselves with water not as if defiling ourselves, but as ridding ourselves from pre-existing pollutions we may have.
The Admonitions of Ipuwer
Remember to … shrine, to fumigate with incense and to offer water in a jar in the early morning. Remember [to bring] fat r-geese, trp-geese, and ducks and to offer God’s offerings to the Gods. Remember to chew natron and to prepare white bread; a man [should do it] on the day of wetting the head. Remember to erect flagstaffs and to carve offering stones, the priest cleansing the chapels and the temple being plastered (white) like milk; to make pleasant the odor of the horizon and to provide bread-offerings. Remember to observe regulations, to fix dates correctly, and to remove him who enters on the priestly office in impurity of body, for that is doing it wrongfully, it is destruction of the heart.
Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Foods 2.50
Priests, diviners and all men who are wise in the ways of religion instruct us to stay clear of tombs, of sacrilegious men, menstruating women, sexual intercourse, any shameful or lamentable sight, anything heard which arouses emotion; for often even unseen impurity disturbs those officiating at the rites, and an improperly performed sacrifice brings more harm than good.
Because Trophime, daughter of Artemidoros, also known as Kikinnas, had been asked by the God to fulfil a service and refused to come quickly, the God punished her and made her insane. Now, she asked Meter Tarsene and Apollo Tarsios and Mes Artemidorou Axiottenos, who rules over Koresa. And the God ordered me to register myself for sacred service.
IG iv2.1.121-2, Stele A
Ambrosia of Athens, blind in one eye. This woman came as a suppliant to the God. Walking in the sanctuary, she mocked at certain of the cures, claiming it was unbelievable that lame and blind people should have recovered their health merely by experiencing a dream. She incubated in the sanctuary and had a dream: the God appeared right up close to her and told her that he would cure her, but that she would have to pay in sacrifice a silver pig as a memorial of her foolishness. So saying, he made an incision in her sick eye and poured in medicine. The next morning she departed, cured.
P.Corn. Inv. II 26
To Isidora, castanet dancer, from Artemisia of the village of Philadelphia. I wish to engage you with two other castanet dancers to perform at the festival at my house for six days beginning with the 24th of the month Payni according to the old calendar, you to receive as pay 36 drachmai for each day, and for the entire period 4 artabai of barley and 20 pairs of bread loaves; and whatsoever garments or gold ornaments you may bring down, we will guard these safely; and we will furnish you with two donkeys when you come down to us and a like number when you go back to the city. Year 14 of Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius, Augusti, and Publius Septimius Geta Caesar Augustus, Payni 16.
Prolegomena to Theokritos, Bucolicorum Graecorum 2.5
Concerning the Thalusia: At one time there were troubles at Syracuse which it was deemed were caused by Artemis. So the farmers brought gifts and sang a joyful hymn to the Goddess and later on this became a customary event. As the rustics sang they would carry loaves of bread with figures of wild beasts on them, purses full of every type of seed, and a goat-skin with wine; they poured out libations for all those they met, wore a garland and deer antlers, and carried a shepherd’s rabbit-prod in their hands. The winner of the competition receives the bread of the defeated. They also sing other songs of a playful, funny nature, first saying in reverent tones, Receive good fortune, receive good health, which we bring from the Goddess, by which she gave her command.
Euripides, Melanippe Captive Fr. 13
Men’s criticism of women is worthless twanging of a bowstring and evil talk. Women are better than men, as I will show …Women run households and protect within their homes what has been carried across the sea, and without a woman no home is clean or prosperous. Consider their role in religion, for that, in my opinion, comes first. We women play the most important part, because women prophesy the will of Loxias in the oracles of Phoibos. And at the holy site of Dodona near the Sacred Oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece. As for the sacred rites of the Fates and the Nameless Goddesses, all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in women’s hands. In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the Gods. Why is it then, that women must have a bad reputation? Won’t men’s worthless criticism stop, and men who insist on blaming all women alike, if one woman turns out to be evil? Let me make the following distinctions: there is nothing worse than a bad woman, and nothing better in any way than a good one.
Cato, De Agricultura 143
The mistress of the estate must not perform rites, or cause others to perform them for her, unless at her master’s orders: it must be understood that the master performs rites for all the household. She must be clean, and keep the farmhouse sweet and clean. She must have the hearth ready swept all round each day before she goes to bed. On the Kalends, the Ides, the Nones, and on a feast day, she must place a wreath at the hearth, and on those days she must make offering to the Lar of the Household according to her means.
LSCG Suppl. 115
If a bride comes to the dormitory, she must sacrifice as a penalty to Artemis. She must not share a roof with her husband and must not be polluted; she must purify the temple of Artemis and as a penalty sacrifice a full-grown victim, and then she should go to the dormitory. If she pollutes involuntarily, she must purify the temple. A bride must make a ceremonial visit to the bride-room at the temple of Artemis at the festival of Artemis, whenver she wishes, but the sooner the better. If she does not make her ceremonial visit, she must make the regular sacrifice to Artemis at the festival of Artemis as one who has made no visit, and she must purify the temple and sacrifice a victim as a penalty. A pregnant woman shall make a ceremonial visit before birth to the bride-room in the precinct of Artemis and give the Bear priestess feet and head and skin of the sacrifice. If she does not make a ceremonial visit before giving birth she must make visit afterwards with a full-grown victim. If she makes a ceremonial visit to the temple she must observe ritual purity on the seventh, eighth, and ninth day, and if she does not make a visit, she must perform the rites on these days. If she is polluted, she must purify herself and the temple and sacrifice a full-grown victim as penalty. If a woman miscarries, if the foetus is fully formed, they are polluted as if by a death; if it is not fully formed, the household is polluted as if from childbirth.
Now, what means your not going to the Wise Woman about the two boys who died in your charge? Consult the Wise Woman about the death the two boys suffered: was it their fate or was it their lot? While you consult about them for me, also see about my own life and the life of their mother. And should she happen to mention any God to you, you will be sure to write me afterwards about his name and any work that he wills to be done by one who knows their duty.
Xenophon, Anabasis 3.1.5-7
And Sokrates advised Xenophon to go to Delphi and consult the God in regard to this journey. So Xenophon went and asked Apollo to what one of the Gods he should sacrifice and pray in order best and most successfully to perform the journey which he had in mind and, after meeting with good fortune, to return home in safety; and Apollon in his response told him to what Gods he must sacrifice. When Xenophon came back from Delphi, he reported the oracle to Sokrates; and upon hearing about it Sokrates found fault with him because he did not first put the question whether it were better for him to go or stay, but decided for himself that he was to go and then asked the God as to the best way of going. However, he added, since you did put the question in that way, you must do all that the God directed.
The Diocesan Council of Auxerre
1. It is not permitted to dress up as a calf or a stag on the Kalends of January or to present diabolical gifts; on that day all favors shall be granted as on other days.
3. It is forbidden to make offerings or keep vigils on saints’ festivals in private houses, or to discharge vows among woods or at sacred trees or at springs, but, whoever has a vow, let him keep vigil in the church and fulfill his vow by giving to the servants of the church or the poor. Nor let anyone dare to make feet or images of men out of wood.
4. It is forbidden to turn to soothsayers or to augurs, or to those who pretend to know the future, or to look at what they call ‘the lots of the Saints’ or those they make out of wood or bread. But whatever a man wishes to do, let him do it in the name of God.
5. Forbid especially, in every way, these observances on the vigils which are kept in honor of Saint Martin.
8. It is forbidden to offer mellita, mulsa or any other mixture of wine and honey at the altar of the divine sacrifice. Any potion other than wine mixed with water is forbidden. Great sin and crime belong to the presbyter who dares offer any drink other than wine in the consecration of the blood of Christ.