Maya underworld portal found?

A labyrinth filled with stone temples and pyramids in 14 caves-some underwater-have been uncovered on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, archaeologists announced last week. The discovery has experts wondering whether Maya legend inspired the construction of the underground complex-or vice versa.

According to Maya myth, the souls of the dead had to follow a dog with night vision on a horrific and watery path and endure myriad challenges before they could rest in the afterlife.

In one of the recently found caves, researchers discovered a nearly 300-foot (90-meter) concrete road that ends at a column standing in front of a body of water.

“We have this pattern now of finding temples close to the water-or under the water, in this most recent case,” said Guillermo de Anda, lead investigator at the research sites.

“These were probably made as part of a very elaborate ritual,” de Anda said. “Everything is related to death, life, and human sacrifice.”

Stretching south from southern Mexico, through Guatemala, and into northern Belize, the Maya culture had its heyday from about A.D. 250 to 900, when the civilization mysteriously collapsed.

Archaeologists excavating the temples and pyramids in the village of Tahtzibichen, in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state, said the oldest item they found was a 1,900-year-old vessel. Other uncovered earthenware and sculptures dated to A.D. 750 to 850.

“There are stones, huge columns, and sculptures of priests in the caves,” said de Anda, whose team has been working on the Yucatán Peninsula for six months.

“There are also human remains and ceramics,” he said.

Researchers said the ancient legend-described in part in the sacred book Popul Vuh-tell of a tortuous journey through oozing blood, bats, and spiders, that souls had to make in order to reach Xibalba, the underworld.

“Caves are natural portals to other realms, which could have inspired the Mayan myth. They are related to darkness, to fright, and to monsters,” de Anda said, adding that this does not contradict the theory that the myth inspired the temples.

William Saturno, a Maya expert at Boston University, believes the maze of temples was built after the story.

“I’m sure the myths came first, and the caves reaffirmed the broad time-and-space myths of the Mayans,” he said.

Saturno said the discovery of the temples underwater indicates the significant effort the Maya put into creating these portals.

In addition to plunging deep into the forest to reach the cave openings, Maya builders would have had to hold their breath and dive underwater to build some of the shrines and pyramids.

Other Maya underworld entrances have been discovered in jungles and aboveground caves in northern Guatemala and Belize.

“They believed in a reality with many layers,” Saturno said of the Maya. “The portal between life and where the dead go was important to them.”




The cult-place of a hero could be called by a variety of terms. Some emphasize the fact that the hero was dead: sēma, mnēma, thēkē, and taphos are all terms used for regular burials as well as heroic tombs. Hērōon refers to a cult-place with a tomb, but the term seems to denote something more elaborate than just a simple burial. The lack of a burial could be noted, as when Pausanias states that the sacrifices to Myrtilus at Olympia took place at an empty mound, kenon ērion (6.10.17). Terms used for the sanctuaries of the gods are found as well, such as temenos and hieron (a holy place or precinct), naos (temple), or alsos (sacred grove).

The diversity in terminology corresponds to the variations in appearance of archaeologically attested cult-places of heroes. The identification of a cult-place of a hero or heroine is no simple matter, and without any written evidence it is often difficult to distinguish a cult-place for a hero from that of a minor god or, in later periods, from a substantial burial monument for an ordinary dead person. Most archaeologically attested hero-cults have either been identified by epigraphical evidence found at the site or by being connected with a hero-cult mentioned in literary sources (Pausanias’ account of Greece refers to more than a hundred heroes having some kind of physical monument). On archaeological grounds alone, the means for recognizing a hero-shrine are more ambiguous.

A location on or at graves makes the identification plausible, if it can be demonstrated that the burials were in fact known when the cult was established. But a number of hero-shrines show no association with burials at all and it is also clear from the written evidence that the tomb of the hero was no prerequisite for the installation of the cult.

To single out certain kinds of votives as particularly ‘‘heroic” is difficult. Some types of figurines, such as horses and riders, or pottery shapes, such as kraters, drinking cups or large bowls for the bath of the hero, or objects, such as miniature shields, have been claimed to be typical for hero-cults. A closer comparison with local votive practices often shows that the same objects were dedicated to the gods or used as funerary gifts as well. One category of votive offering which can be said to be particularly linked to hero-cults, though their appearance often exhibits local traits, are stone reliefs or terracotta plaques showing a horseman, a seated male figure or a male-female couple, or a reclining and banqueting figure, often accompanied by a snake.

Just like the cult-places of the gods, hero-shrines could be located anywhere: isolated in the countryside, along roads, at city gates, or on the agora, the location often evoking the hero’s role as a founder or protector of the community. A number of hero-cults had a relationship with a divine cult and most, if not all, major sanctuaries of gods housed both burials and cults of heroes. These heroes were often intimately connected with the mythical history of the sanctuary: the hero or heroine founded the sanctuary, instituted the cult, and was its first priest or priestess. The performance of games was also linked to the presence of a hero in a divine sanctuary. At Olympia, Pelops’ defeat of Oenomaus was said to have been commemorated by the institution of the games or, according to another tradition, the games were founded by Heracles in honor of Pelops himself.

The tomb of a hero in a sanctuary gave rise to a myth explaining its presence. At Delphi there were different accounts of why Neoptolemus was slain at the altar of Apollo and buried within the sacred area: Pausanias (10.24.6) pointed out the peribolos with the hero’s tomb near the temple of Apollo. The fact that no convincing match has been made so far with the excavated remains illustrates the difficulties in identifying a hero-shrine.

Written and archaeological evidence makes it clear that many installations connected with heroes consisted only of a tomb, a statue, or a stele, but by no means were all such monuments the focus for sacrifices. The accidental discovery of a prehistoric burial may have called for a one-off sacrifice and dedication of votives, presumably to appease the disturbed hero, but it did not give rise to a recurrent cult. There was also a tradition of some heroes not wanting any cult, as was the case with Eurystheus, who was going to protect Athens from his grave on the condition that the Athenians did not offer him sacrifices and libations (Euripides, Heraclidae 1026-36, 1040-3).

The heroes were local phenomena, and the layout of the cult-place was adapted to local conditions and traditions. These circumstances, as well as the heterogeneity of the hero population, account for the lack of panhellenic conformity in the appearance of the cult-places. The layout of cult-places ranged from the simplest and smallest, some only a piece of land marked by a boundary stone (horos), to large and elaborate sanctuaries. The sacred area could be an abaton, somewhere it was not permitted to enter, and any votives were offered by dropping them over the walls, as at the so-called Leokorion in the Athenian agora and a number of small precincts on Delos. Many hero-cults consisted of small enclosures, in which only an offering table or altar was placed, as in the case of the Stele shrine and the Crossroads hērōon at Corinth or that of the Amyneion at Athens, which also had a well and perhaps a simple stoa.

Some were unique in appearance, as in the case of the Menelaion at Sparta, which consisted of a massive, rectangular platform, almost 15 – 20 m and at least 5 m high. It was accessed by a ramp, and on top there may have been an altar, statues, or a small temple. Finally, there were hero sanctuaries with a temple, like that of a god, and auxiliary buildings, such as the Amphiareion at Oropus, the sanctuary of Hippolytus at Troezen, and the Herakleion on Thasos. The sanctuary of Hērōs Ptoios in Boeotia had at least two altars, a small temple, probably housing the cult statue, and a stoa where the worshipers could dine and sleep, and in which votive objects were kept. The importance of this sanctuary is also evident from two rows of inscribed stone columns, from the late sixth to the mid-fifth century, supporting monumental tripods.

A fundamental trait of a hero was the fact that he was dead, but the relationship between the tomb of the hero and the location and appearance of the cult-place is complex. Some cult-places emphasized the burial aspect, as in the case of the archaic enclosure of the Pelopion at Olympia, which was centered on a prehistoric tumulus, identified as the tomb of the hero, or in that of the precinct of Opheltes at Nemea, in which a mound was artificially created in the sixth century. Others show no traces of a tomb or burial, and some heroes had cults even though the mythic narrative makes it clear that there were no physical remains, since the hero had vanished at the moment of death.

While the tomb of an ordinary dead person constituted a source of pollution, the burials of heroes were an exception to this rule and could be placed in spaces reserved for the living or for the gods, areas from which the dead were otherwise banned. However, religious personnel sometimes had to take certain precautions. Two third-century BC inscriptions from Cos stipulate that the priestesses of Demeter, in order to keep their purity, should not step upon or eat by a hērōon (LS 154 A, 21-2 and 37; 156 A, 8-10, heavily restored).

Pausanias remarks that anyone who ate from the sacrifices to Pelops at Olympia could not enter the temple of Zeus (5.13.3). Presumably participation in the cult of this hero made the worshiper impure in the eyes of the god. In several cases the bones of heroes are described as gigantic, in accordance with the notion of heroes being men larger than life. The finding of prehistoric bones may have lain behind some stories, and discoveries of this sort could also give rise to cults. The display of actual heroic bones seems, on the other hand, to have been less important for the cult than the fact that a city or sanctuary possessed them and that they were kept at a particular location. In contrast to the relics of Christian saints, individual bones did not contain the power of the hero (unless the rest of the skeleton was missing, as in the case of Pelops’ shoulder blade, kept at Olympia), and there is no tradition of the bones being used to perform miracles or healing, or of them being dangerous.

Other possessions of heroes were also displayed in sanctuaries and revered, though rarely in the same cultic sense as the bones. Among such venerable objects were spears, shields, and other items of weaponry, but also chariots, ships, furniture, and clothing, and the egg of Leda was even reported to have been kept in the sanctuary of the Leucippides at Sparta.

This post is a part of Heroes and Hero-cults series (for more info see previous posts).

RITUAL: Consumption or Destruction

Our view of the sacrificial rituals of hero-cults has in the last decade undergone substantial changes. The traditional notion of hero-sacrifices consisting of holocausts on low hearth-altars, libations of blood in pits, and the offering of prepared meals, but never including ritual dining, needs to be fundamentally revised.

This view of hero-cult ritual has been based on an uncritical use of literary sources of different date and character, and on the assumption that information derived from Roman or even Byzantine writers is valid also for conditions during earlier periods. If a broader range of evidence is considered (literary and epigraphical sources, iconography and archaeology) and a focus is maintained primarily upon contemporary sources, the sacrificial rituals of hero-cults in the archaic to hellenistic periods turn out to be very similar to those of the gods.

The main ritual in hero-cult was an animal sacrifice at which the worshipers ate the meat. The terminology used for these sacrifices was thyein and thysia, standard terms in the cult of the gods. There is literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence for the handling and division of the meat and dining facilities in the sanctuaries of heroes, and direct references to eating. For example, a mid-fifth-century Athenian decree of the cult association of the Hero Echelos and his Heroines states how the meat of the victims sacrificed, a piglet and two fully grown animals, probably sheep, was to be distributed. Present members of the association were to receive a full portion, while their sons, wives, and daughters seem to have been given at least half a portion of meat each.

Also, the terminology relating to and the appearance of the altars or sacrificial installations used in hero-cults show few differences from those used in the cult of the gods. The altar is called bōmos, while the term eschara, commonly taken to mean a particular hero-altar, was applied to the upper part of the bōmos where the fire was kept, often manufactured in a different material. In hero-cults, eschara could also refer to a simple ash altar located directly on the ground, a feature known from the Archegesion on Delos, but the sacrifices were of the alimentary kind.

Apart from regular animal sacrifices, the heroes also received theoxenia, offerings of food of the kind eaten by humans. This ritual could simply consist of a table with offerings, trapeza, and would then be a less expensive, vegetarian alternative to animal sacrifice, especially in private contexts. In official cult, this ritual often functioned as a means of substantiating a thysia, either by giving the same recipient both an animal victim and a table or, in the case of a hero and a heroine, giving the former the animal, while the less important heroine received the table.

A large number of reliefs (so-called Totenmahl reliefs) show a hero reclining at a table with offerings, while worshipers approach, sometimes bringing an animal as well. Heracles and the Dioscuri were commonly depicted as banqueters, a scheme certainly reflecting the particular importance of theoxenia in their cults. The aim of the theoxenia seems to have been to bring the recipient closer to the worshipers, and the ritual could also include the preparation of a couch and an invitation to the hero to come and participate as an honored guest. That a closer bond was desired at private sacrifices is understandable, but the presence of a Hēroxeinia festival on Thasos shows that state cults of heroes focused on such rituals as well.

On the whole, the rituals traditionally considered as typical for heroes, and as distinguishing them from the gods in general, must be considered as marginal features in hero-cults. Blood was of relatively minor importance, and at standard animal sacrifices to heroes the blood was kept and eaten, just as the meat was. At a small number of sacrifices the ritual was modified, with the blood being completely discarded, an action designated by a particular terminology denoting the technical aspects of this procedure.

The sacrifices to Pelops at Olympia, as outlined by Pindar (Olympian 1.90-3), consisted of a thysia sacrifice embellished with a laden table and couch, but the ritual was initiated by a pouring out of blood, haimakouria, presumably over the hero’s tomb or into a pit, bothros. The blood seems here to have functioned as a means of contacting and inviting the hero and ensuring his presence at the sacrifice.

Most heroes for whom such libations of blood are attested have a particular connection with war, and the ritual may have served both to underline this association and as a reminder of the bloodshed of battle and the battle-line sphagia sacrifices, at which the victim’s throat was slit and the blood flowed freely.

On Thasos, the war dead, called Agathoi, ‘‘the good men,” were honored with a public funeral, sacrifices, and an official listing of their names. The inscription gives the term entemnein for the ritual action, which in context is best understood to refer to the animal being killed and bled, the blood perhaps being poured on the tomb of the Agathoi, while the meat was eaten at a banquet in which the relatives of the fallen occupied a prominent position. A similar procedure can be reconstructed from Thucydides’ account of the rituals for the Spartan general Brasidas, who fell while defending Amphipolis against the Athenians (Thucydides 5.11). He was buried in the city, proclaimed its new founder, and venerated as a hero with games and sacrifices, which included libations of blood and public consumption of the meat.

Destruction sacrifices, at which no dining took place, were rare in hero-cults. Some of these rituals are covered by the terminology used in the cult of the dead (enagizein), and the use of this terminology seems to imply not only the burning of the offerings, but also an emphasis of the dead and therefore impure character of these particular heroes.

Heracles received thysia sacrifices, at which the meat was eaten, and enagizein sacrifices, a combination meant to bring out his dual character as both an immortal god and a mortal hero (Herodotus 2.44). In all, however, the complete or partial destruction of the animal victim was no more common in hero-cults than in the cults of the gods, most instances, in fact, being found in the cult of Zeus. Many destruction sacrifices, no matter who the recipient, were performed in a crisis context, in which this extraordinary ritual was aimed at solving the problems.

A particular heroic trait was to destroy a ninth part of the victim (or rather of its meat). The sacred law from Selinous mentions a sacrifice to the impure Tritopatores ‘‘as to the heroes” and prescribes that a ninth of the meat was to be burnt. A sacrificial calendar from Mykonos from around 200 BC also stipulates such a sacrifice (enateuein) to Semele, and the ritual was also known, but perhaps not executed, on Thasos in the cult of Heracles.

That the heroes were important recipients of worship is obvious from the actual number of sacrifices they received and the amount of money spent on these occasions. It comes as no surprise that alimentary sacrifice was the main ritual of hero-cults, considering the fact that heroes fulfilled the same role as gods within the Greek religious system. The four best-preserved sacrificial calendars from classical Attica illustrate this point clearly. Of the 170 or so sacrifices listed in these texts, 40 percent were performed to heroes, while the amounts of money spent on the victims for these sacrifices was around 38 percent of the budget. If the meat from all the animals sacrificed to heroes had been considered unfit for consumption, more than a third of animals slaughtered would not have been eaten. Such a waste of meat seems highly implausible, considering the vital role sacrifices and distribution of meat fulfilled in ancient Greek society, both as a means of strengthening the social ties between citizens and as an indicator of who belonged and who did not, and considering also the fact that virtually all meat eaten seems to have come from animals killed in a ritual context.

This post is the part III of Heroes and Hero cults series (I, II)

Book of interest

Religion in the Roman Empire (pt.II.)

In many ways, the most important evidence we have about the religious history of Rome comes from a set of records, mostly though not exclusively preserved on stone, and mostly dating from the age of the first emperor, Augustus (31 BC-14 AD). They provide us with quite elaborate calendars of Roman religion, mainly as it was in the republican era, though with some more recent anniversaries noted. These calendars in their fullest versions encode a great deal of information not just about religious festivals, but about the legal status of different days and the organization of time in relation to public life. Days are given individual markings, showing whether the popular assemblies could meet, the courts sit and so on. All these matters fell within the responsibility of the college of pontifices. Some sets of calendars also have attached notes explaining the entries and probably derived from the work of Roman scholars of the late republican period.

The calendars seem to reveal a distinction between festivals marked in capital letters and those, seemingly added to the calendar at a later date, in smaller letters. The capital-letter festivals seem to represent some older stage of the calendar’s history: they do not, for instance, include the different sets of games (ludi) which became important later on and which are mostly recorded as introductions of the republican period; again, the great gods of the later period do not have festivals of their own, whereas many gods and goddesses, later completely obscure, do. So, the calendars provide us with another example of the pattern of slow change and adjustment of Roman religious life, even in a document intended to reflect an unchanging annual rhythm. The copies of this calendar, widely distributed under the rule of Augustus, must show what importance was attached to the religious tradition as a marker of what it was to share a Roman identity, as all Italians were by the late Republic supposed to do, since they had all received the citizenship of Rome during the preceding century.

When it comes to the interpretation of these festivals, we have a quite rich tradition to turn to – especially a poetic account of the calendar written by the Augustan poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) and covering the first six months of the year, but also including scattered writings derived from the antiquarian tradition of the late republican period. At one time this body of material was methodically scoured to see whether it could tell us about the earliest periods of Roman history; scholars today often regard that as a misguided search, but use the same material to assess the religious attitudes of the writers’ own period. The results are surprising: what characterizes the tradition is the variety of different interpretations of the same festivals that emerges. Ovid in particular is proud to display a number of different views: sometimes he calls them Greek, sometimes Italian, sometimes they contradict one another, sometimes they are compatible. Ovid does not declare his choice among the possibilities he expounds. The view now being argued is that Romans did not expect their festivals to have a fixed canonical meaning. The rituals were thought of as never-changing, but evidently the meaning for those experiencing them was not fixed, at least over any period of time. We can prove this clearly in a handful of cases: for example, the Parilia is celebrated as a festival of shepherds, but later as the Birthday of Rome. If this is right, then the later commentators, like Ovid, are simply echoing the range of possible meanings that participants would have attributed to them at the time.

Divination was an area to which the Romans gave a good deal of attention and on which they prided themselves for their care and concern – at least as remembered from the time of their ancestors. Late republicans tell us that originally nothing was done, no action attempted, without a prior consultation of the gods. Various priests (haruspices, quindecimviri, augures) were involved and could give advice, though in this case as in others, it was the magistrates not the priests who carried out many of the rituals on the state’s behalf. At least so far as our records go, the most prominent feature of this activity was not so much foretelling the future as communicating warnings and advice as to which deities needed to be offered sacrifices or piacular offerings. Even if, as is quite possible, our sources deliberately play down the prophetic elements and play up the pious fulfilling of ritual obligations, it was undoubtedly a major part of the diviner’s job to identify the deities and the ceremonies needed.

The Romans distinguished between signs for which the diviner asked (impetrativa) and those that the gods sent on their own initiative (oblativa), warning of dangers to the state. The most distinctive form of warning was the prodigy (prodigium), whole lists of which are recorded, particularly by Livy for the middle to late Republic. To judge by these lists, a prodigy could be any event that the Romans judged to be outside the normal course of nature. Some of them we should classify as miraculous (for example the raining from the sky of blood, milk or stones), but many were natural or at least believable events: the birth of deformed animals, the intrusion of wild animals into urban space, lightning striking buildings and even natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. They do all tend to involve the transgressing of some boundary, seen by the Romans as natural and they all imply the need for placatory action.

The senate was the authority that dealt initially with all prodigies; they sought the advice of the specialists in the particular field and followed their advice. Measures taken to deal with prodigies generally consisted of rituals, but all the priests sometimes produced at least generalized warnings. There was nothing unacceptable about prediction as such, and on formal occasions such as the declaration of a war the diviners (haruspices) did predict victory and expansion of the frontiers. The augurs were responsible for consultations either before action in the city or before campaigns and battles. They sought the answer to straightforward questions of consent or denial; without consent the action could not or should not proceed. There was, however, no question of the gods guaranteeing victory or success in advance. It seems a more useful approach to say that the gods and goddesses were seen as a part of the community, sharing in the activities and at least normally supporting the Romans in whatever they did. But their support could not be taken for granted: it was earned by the care and skill of the priests and magistrates. The Romans succeeded because they were so scrupulous in the execution of the religio the gods required.

In the republican period, there was no question that contemporary human beings could ever cross the dividing line between the human and the divine. Only in the mythical past were they aware of Romans who had become gods. In the very late Republic, this line started to be blurred, as increasingly superhuman honours began to be conceded to the great generals who were conquering the known world – Pompey and, most of all, Caesar. All the same, in Rome itself, living men did not receive divine honours even in the imperial period; but this was not true of the provinces, where the living Emperor could be and was the object of a full cult.

In Rome itself, there was a quite elaborate ceremony that developed in the course of the first century AD, in which, after orations in praise of the dead Emperor and a parade involving the members of the elite of Rome, his body was ritually burned on an elaborate pyre and his soul, symbolized by the flight of an eagle, ascended to the heavens. This ceremony only took place after the senate had recognized that he had become a god; some emperors were never so recognized at all, apparently because the senate disapproved of their rule. In their life-times, a careful ritual distinction was maintained between the dead divine emperors (the divi), to whom sacrifice was offered directly, and the living ruler, who received no sacrifices for himself, only for his genius (inherited spirit?). The divi themselves were very prominent in the space of the city as much of the new temple building was in their honour, including some of the grandest temples ever built in Rome.

These careful distinctions applied apparently only inside Rome. Everywhere else, sacrifice took place, though sometimes it is recorded as for rather than to the Emperor. There was no direction from the centre, so the cult was organized and devised in the various regions and cities of the Empire. But temples to the Emperor, or to him together with the goddess Roma, games in his honour, priests of his cult and so on, all were to be found throughout the provinces. Cities competed in devising festivals in his honour more spectacular than those of their rivals. Statues and images of him abounded in the cities.

There is no doubt that all this is important, but it is also important not to get the new cult out of proportion. The new gods in no sense replaced the old ones: they did not become the recipients of prayers or vows, or play any role in the private lives of the citizens. They did not offer cures or help with childbirth. Their place was in the public arena. It is also a mistake to think that this was in any sense a new religion different from traditional paganism: it fitted neatly into the pattern of the multiplicity of gods and goddesses worshipped in the vast areas of the Empire, offering no challenge to the belief in the old gods. Modern interpreters have often found the whole phenomenon deeply problematic; ancient commentators sometimes found it a suitable subject for wit, but few ancients seem to have protested or refused to participate apart from the Christians, for whom it was used as a test of their commitment. [To be continued…]

Books of interest can be found at the bottom of the page here

Religion in the Roman Empire (pt.I.)

Much of the practice of Roman pagan religion seems at first sight deceptively familiar to us: the conceptions were much the same – there were deities, prayers, vows, sacrifices, festivals, sacred persons and sacred spaces. There was a constant need to consult the deities about what should happen or be done and much the same acceptance that prayers might be answered or not answered, but that the pious must maintain their devotion even when the situation was at a low ebb. There was also a distinction between proper devotion to the gods and excessive concern about them, for which the Roman term was superstition. A good deal of the vocabulary is the same too: superstitio, religio, sacrificium. But such parallels can be deeply deceptive. It is all too easy to think, without thinking too much, that the Romans had a religion just like modern ones, that we can coin a word ‘pagan-ism‘ and it will mean the same as religio does for the Romans. But modern religions are systems of belief and systems of morality, while religio seems only to concern the institutions and practices of religious life. Not of course that the Romans lacked beliefs or morality, but their religious system did not explicitly connect a set of rituals with particular ideas and beliefs.

The gods and goddesses of the Roman people were literally without number. There were some high gods and goddesses, with complex different functions and rituals – Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, Mars, Diana – who were consistently important in all periods. They were, however, not formed into a pantheon, but they certainly did have areas in which they specialized. Mostly they were shared with other Italian communities, especially Mars who was important throughout Italy, not just where Latin was spoken as by the Romans, but also in the areas of southern Italy where the language was Oscan, as for example by the Samnites. It is clear that these deities were very early on identified with corresponding Greek ones, and these identifications remain constant over time. So far as we can tell, there were few local myths that belonged to the Roman gods and no tradition that they had family relationships like Greek gods. They borrowed Greek stories and it is often these that we meet in later poets.

There were then innumerable grades of lesser gods. Some were specific to one particular place or one natural process, for example the growing of crops. Some were identified with what might be seen as human products, such as Terminus who was the boundary marker of the farm. Specific deities were the patrons of the household and the farm, especially the Lares and Penates, and were worshipped in individual families. Other gods were associated with a specific moment in the calendar of festivals and never occur except in that single annual ritual moment. Some gods seem not to receive worship in the city, but belong to the countryside or the wilds. Some are revealed and defined by a single spot and a single moment in history.

New gods were discovered or introduced at most periods of Roman history. Romans had a strong sense of the Roman-ness of the gods of Rome, but no sense that they should constitute a closed list or that newcomers would not be welcome. Gods are sometimes introduced from abroad, as the healing god Aesculapius from Greece in 296 BC or Magna Mater (Cybele) from Asia Minor in 207 BC; or tempted out from enemy cities and offered cult by the Romans; or identified with the many personifications recognized by the Romans in the course of the third-second centuries BC. This preparedness to experiment and innovate continued in the imperial period, not least in the inscribed records, preserved in large quantities, of a priestly group called the Arval Brethren, where we still find a constant process of adaptation and development.

This all raises some problems for the understanding of the whole situation. In many ways the Roman religious tradition was and had to be deeply conservative: it placed huge emphasis on the accurate repetition of religious rituals – even the smallest aberration led to a repeat performance (instauratio) of the whole; the rituals were supposed to have been handed by the religious founder Numa Pompilius, the second Roman king (traditional dates 715-673 BC), to the first of the Roman priests; so the Roman religious order depended fundamentally on the retention of this revealed ritual practice. In many cases, we do not know how the apparent opposition between conservatism and innovation was reconciled in practice; but part of the answer must lie in the Romans’ tendency to see as the revival of some ancient practice or forgotten deity what we might prefer to call an innovation. Thus, for instance, the Magna Mater, apparently a strange and foreign goddess, turns out in Roman poets to be the goddess of Troy, and so an ancestral power re-accepted. In any case, the reality for the historian must be innovation, even when contemporaries could not or did not accept it as such.

The Romans from a very early date had a rich variety of priestly groups (collegia or sodalitates) with defined and specialized functions. These seem always to have been responsible for choosing their own members and for keeping their own records and lists of members, though their numbers seem to have been fixed and changes were made by state legislation not by the colleges themselves. The duties of the groups varied widely, from officiating or performing at a single occasion in the calendar (as the Luperci on 15 February – the Lupercalia) to taking general responsibility for a whole area of religious activity (as the fetiales take responsibility for the rituals of declaring war and making treaties). Four groups (pontifices, augures, quindecimviri, septemviri) were regarded as the major colleges and their affairs were controlled by law in the late Republic, while others remained under their own control.

All the priests had some ritual duties to perform and it might be assumed that originally they were primarily ritual officers. By the late Republic and later, when we have reliable information, they presided over the rituals and carried out symbolic actions, but had many assistants who carried out the killing of victims and the watching of birds on their behalf. The priests themselves, at least in the most important colleges, were almost all leading men of the political oligarchy; in many cases we know the priesthoods they held – Cicero and Mark Antony were augures, Caesar the pontifex maximus. Members of the top families of the ruling elite often took these priesthoods at an early age, before they had become senators and started on their political careers.

The role in which we know them best and can see them at work through the surviving sources is not as religious agents, but as religious advisors. The state’s main religious agents were in fact the high magistrates (consuls and praetors), who held the sacrifices, formally consulted the gods/goddesses and took vows to them binding the state to future actions. The priests appear as helpers and advisors, dictating the formulas to the magistrate; or else as experts on the religious law (the ius divinum). They kept books which contained (or were supposed to contain) the rituals and the precedents from earlier rulings on points of religious law. It was in this capacity that the senate when faced with religious decisions consulted the priests. Even here, however, the final decision lay not with the priests, who only gave a statement as to the rules of the sacred law, but with the senate itself; only they could produce action, even though they followed the priests’ advice.

The origins of this complex system of priesthood must go back to very early times, but in the form we actually meet it in the second/third centuries BC it is clear that it expresses in religious terms the dominant theory of the republican era. Power over religious matters in the state was distributed as widely as it could be: the priesthoods themselves had rules that prevented more than one member of any family from joining any particular college and any individual from joining more than one college; meanwhile the religious issues concerning the state were divided between the colleges so that none had a monopoly of advice. It is true that the pontifex maximus had great authority, but in no sense was he or anyone else the head of the system. The significance of this system became dramatically apparent as soon as the Republic broke down and the new emperor almost at once appropriated all the priesthoods of any significance and also became permanently the pontifex maximus.

The ritual of sacrifice is a key to the whole religious order of the Romans. Sacrifices were involved in all the main festivals and occurred before any military action or in any celebration of victory. Images of sacrifice are to be found not just when sacrificial events are recorded as on bas-reliefs, but also when sacrificial instruments are depicted regularly as artistic motifs. The imagery of a monument such as the Ara Pacis – whose primary references are to victory, peace and the glory of the ruling dynasty – is in fact full of sacrificial elements. Meanwhile, under the Empire, the image of the sacrificer, presented as a magistrate with his toga pulled over his head pouring incense from a saucer onto an altar, became virtually the monopoly of the reigning emperor, a familiar expression of his power.

The ritual was quite elaborate and governed by rules that had to be respected and an order of events to be followed. The victim had to be selected in relation to the god or goddess to whom the sacrifice was to be addressed, in terms of its sex, age and colour; it had to be brought willingly to the altar of the appropriate deity, and sanctified by placing wine and meal on its head (this element was called the immolation (immolatio)); a prayer had to be spoken, naming the deity for whom the victim was intended. The killing had to be instantaneous and the monuments show us how in the case of a large victim the animal was stunned by a blow from a mallet, while a knife was simultaneously slipped into its neck. Any struggle or escape by the victim was very unpropitious. The next stage was the extispicy, the inspection of the entrails by a diviner; at its simplest this confirmed that the sacrifice was acceptable, but more explicit interpretations could be sought and given. Then, when the sacrifice had been confirmed, the carcass was elaborately butchered and the entrails returned to the gods, together with their particular share of the meat. The rest was cooked on the spot and eaten at a feast by the participants; alternatively at least some of the meat found its way on to the meat market.

The Romans are remarkably silent on the significance of this ritual to them. We have no interpretation at all from a believing Roman, only one from a Greek observer and one from a third-century AD Christian convert (Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Arnobius, Against the Gentiles Book VII). Some aspects can be clearly established: the victims were almost invariably farm animals, and were normally eaten – and it may be that a sacrifice gave much of the population their only opportunity to eat meat at all. The effect of the sacrifice must have been to identify the separation, but also the interaction, of men and gods – sharing in the ritual and even sharing in the food, but in food carefully divided between them. It is relevant here that the Romans regularly brought out their gods and goddesses from inside their temple-homes and offered them meals. The second clear point is that there were communications between humans and deities implicit in the ritual programme: the behaviour of the victim and the state of its entrails indicated the acceptance or otherwise of the gods; humans communicated verbally by prayer, but also symbolically by the choice of victim, by the conduct of the ritual, by the offering of the deity’s share. Finally, the whole procedure was informed by the skills and knowledge of the participants on which success of the transaction depended. [To be continued…]

Books of interest

Emperor worship and Roman religion

An introduction to Roman religion

Archaic Roman religion

A companion to Roman religion