Greek and Roman Religious Practices

To the ancients the core of religion was the cultic act or ritual sacrifice, which, if correctly performed, ensured the correct (quid pro quo,

"something in return for something") contractual response from the deity. Usually a living victim, a pig or sheep or ox, was offered to a god or goddess with a prayer for the continued prosperity of that deity, who then would grant the request of the worshipper. The ritual had to be performed with exacting precision: the size and color of the victim—for example, white for Jupiter and Juno, and black for the gods of the underworld—had to be just right, the dress of the priest, the music, the prayers, and all the ritual purifications were carefully prescribed. If there was an error, the entire ritual had to be repeated.

The Pontifex Maximus, "Chief Priest," oversaw all sacrifices and ceremonies essential to maintaining the pax deorum, "peace of the gods." His role paralleled that of the paterfamilias, "head of the family," who served the gods as the primary guardian and representative of his family. As domestic religious sacrifices performed for births, marriages, funerals, and other rites of passage became community concerns the state began to oversee these sacrifices on behalf of larger communities. Corresponding priesthoods with specific functions developed: pontifices, "pontiffs," had jurisdiction over the religious calendar of holy days, called feriae, when religious rites were performed and no business was transacted; flamines were priests devoted to particular gods and their temple rites; haruspices were priests who read the entrails of sacrificial animals; and augures were the colleges of priests who interpreted various auguria, "omens," such as lightning or the flights of birds, to divine the will of the gods.

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