Gesture and orientation in prayer
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
One of the notable features of the religio romana is the tension between innovation and conservatism. Throughout Roman history, perhaps even as a consequence of the Founding of the city, there were introduced new deities, new cults, and new modes of worship. The Romans adopted certain features of the Etruscan tradition. They were themselves a union of Latins and Sabines, and over time adopted more from their neighboring Italic tribes, such as the Sabellians of Cumae. More often noted is the introduction of Greek cults with a prescription to perform their rites according to the ritus Graecae. Later in the imperial period foreign cults were introduced to Rome that were tolerated as practiced beside the religio romana but not adopted into the rites of the religio romana. For all of the innovations that were introduced, however, there was always an expressed conservatism in the religio romana. Pliny made this clear when discussing whether words have power (Natural History XXVIII.10-11):
“In fact a sacrifice without a prayer is thought to have no effect, or not to constitute a proper consultation of the gods. Besides, one kind of formula is used in seeking omens, another in averting evil, another for praise. We see too that senior magistrates make their prayers using a precise form of words: someone dictates the formula from a written text to ensure that no word is omitted or spoken in the wrong order; someone else is assigned as an overseer to check ; yet another man is given the task of ensuring silence; and a piper plays to prevent anything else but the prayer being audible.”
Together with the formulary words of prayer we should note mention in some instances of the use of certain gestures and of the orientation of a practitioner while conducting a prayer. The use of proper gesture and orientation, when mentioned, are regarded as part of the proper formula. A case in point is made with the description of a devotio given by Livy (A.U. C. 8.9.4-8) where a pontifex instructs Consul Decius:
“The Pontifex ordered him to take the toga praetexta and with the head covered, a hand protruding from beneath the toga touching the chin, standing with his feet over a spear said the following: "Janus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, divine Novensiles and Indigetes, you gods to whom belongs the power over us and over our foes, and you, too, Divine Manes, I pray to you, I venerate you, I pray that by your grace and favor that you will bless the Roman People, the Quirites, with power and victory, and visit the enemies of the Roman People, the Quirites, with fear and dread and death. In like manner as I have uttered this prayer so do I now on behalf of the Roman Republic of the Quirites, on behalf of the army, the legions, the auxiliaries of the Roman People, the Quirites, I devote the legions and auxiliaries of the enemy, together with myself to the Divine Manes and to Tellus."
Here the stance of the worshipper over a spear, with his head covered, and the gesture of touching a hand to his chin are just as important in performing the devotio as are the words to be used. In another description of a devotio, Macrobius (Saturnalia, 3.9.10-12) states that during the reciting of the prayer the worshiper should touch the ground with both hands while praying to Tellus, direct his (right) hand skyward when addressing Jupiter, and touch both hands to his chest while reciting the vow: cum Tellum dicit manibus terram tangit; cum Jovem dicit manus ad caelum tollit; cum votum recipere dicit manibis pectus tangit.
Although this description is given specifically for a devotio we can consider this to have been the general practice during prayer. The absence of any mention of a specific gesture cannot be taken to mean that no gestures were used in prayer. For example texts refer to an adoratio being made without specifically stating that a particular gesture is associated with an adoratio. However Pliny (Historia Naturalis XXVIII.25) mentions how the right hand is to be kissed as a gesture when making an adoratio. Therefore when Cato instructs in his De Agricultura that certain prayers be offered, it should be understood, as he understood, that the act of addressing a prayer to a god is made with certain commonly practiced gestures. What was commonly performed and associated with ritual acts was not always mentioned as they would have been understood as implied and it would be only the fault of our ignorance to think otherwise. The general gesture of prayer in the religio romana is with the right hand held up, palm forward, with the fingers bent slightly backward: supinae manus. Depictions of this gesture in prayer are somewhat rare, but do appear in some instances, such as in a relief from Trajan’s Forum, now housed in Paris. Another example may be that of the figure of Roma on the relief taken from the base of a column honoring Emperor Antoninus Pius. When specifically addressing Jupiter and the heavens the entire hand, or even the forearm, should be held slightly back so that the palm is directed towards the sky. When addressing other deities through the use of an image the palm is held up and forward, the fingers slightly bent back, directed towards the image. When images are not used, the palm should be directed towards the god or goddess being addressed. For example a prayer addressed to Tiber should face the palm towards the Tiber River; a prayer addressed to Neptune should be directed towards the nearest ocean or spring. Similarly, when a prayer is addressed to Tellus and the di inferi, or to the Manes, the palm should be directed towards the earth: pronus manus. As Varro states, “puerum imponere equo pronum in ventrem, postea sedentem,” and Sallustius has “pecora quae natura prona finxit.” The earth is touched as described for a devotio above when a vow is made to Tellus or the Manes, but not necessarily when a prayer is addressed to them.
A consideration when addressing prayer to the gods and goddesses is directional orientation. As stated above, orientation is generally made towards an image or location associated with the particular deity being addressed. However a more general consideration can be taken into account. The earliest fana were oriented with their entrances on the West so that the altar could be approached while facing East. Vetruvius makes mention of an easterly orientation as well, although Roman temples seem to have been laid without consideration of any particular orientation in mind. An easterly orientation is given when addressing Janus or Matuta as They were associated with the dawning sun. The Actum Fratrum Arvalium specifies the magister addressing prayers to Dea Dia while facing East [CIL VI, 32340.0-20], Varro indicates an association of Ceres with the East [Lingua Latine VII.9], and there are other references to an easterly orientation as well. So we may consider an easterly orientation as appropriate in most situations. However with regard to taking auguries a southerly orientation is specified, where the abode of the gods was regarded to have been in the north. Ovid makes mention of certain rites addressed towards Sirius, and its direction would alter between its rising in the East or descending in the West depending on the time of the year. Likewise other heavenly bodies were associated with certain deities and prayers addressed to Them may have been oriented on such celestial appearances. Where as the East is generally noted for most deities when an orientation is given, the West is considered to be the direction of the dead. Some deities are associated with the dead or with the Underworld and it may be more appropriate to orient towards the West when addressing Them.
Examples of other gestures used in conjunction with rituals may be drawn from Roman art. There are images of supplicants approaching an altar with the right hand held forward from the waist with the palm up. At the altar when incense is offered the right hand is often seen held over the flame with the palm facing down, pronus manus, as though a vow is made to the Di inferi. In most scenes of animal sacrifices the celebrants stand near an altar while the sacrifice is made somewhat to the side. As the sacrifice is made the celebrants hold out their right hand to one side, with open palm, generally directed towards the altar as a sign of offering. In one scene from the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius the emperor is depicted making a libation with his right hand held upright over the flame in a loose fist, his index and middle finger extended. The same gesture is seen in the same context on the calendar of Filocalus and elsewhere. Other scenes of libations show the patera held in the same manner. This hand gesture is commonly depicted and more frequently so in later periods, although not necessarily as a gesture of prayer. The famed statue of Augustus from the Prima Porta has the emperor holding his right hand aloft in a similar gesture with his two fingers extended. Christian bishops later adopted this same pose and gesture of Augustus when giving a blessing. However we should not confuse any Christian gestures as adaptations from the religio romana. Like the Christian gesture of a priest offering prayer with both hands held out at the sides, the palms facing forward, such gestures were usually adopted from the manner in which orators addressed public audiences rather than from the pious acts of pontifices. That is the case with Augustus, too, in that his pose represents him as an orator addressing his people and not as a priest in prayer. Elsewhere the gesture of two extended fingers can be found in the context of gladiatorial games where a contestant makes an appeal. That is what the gesture of extended fingers means, an appeal to an audience to listen, whether made by a gladiator, an orator attempting to carry across a point of his argument, or a worshipper in addressing the gods. It is even found on the Corbridge lanx where Minerva uses the gesture in addressing Diana. From various depictions of sacrifices it is clear that different gestures were used when approaching an altar and when sacrificing, depending on the type of offering being made.
Other examples of gestures would include the protective signs such as the fica mentioned by Ovid at Fasti V. 433 where the thumb is pushed through the index and middle finger of a fist. The fica is meant to represent the protective goddess Mania Genita or Manuana and is thus used during the Lemuria when addressing the Manes. Undoubtedly there were an assortment of postures and gestures used in conjunction with ancient Roman rites. Many are depicted, some are mentioned, but seemingly our textual sources mention only those that were less commonly known. Still, the use of gestures should never be neglected when addressing the gods in prayer as these were regarded in the mos maiores to be an integral part of any ritual in the religio romana. That is made clear in those instances where gestures are specifically mentioned, and an absence of reference to specific gestures in other places cannot be taken as evidence that no gestures were used. The adoratio refers to a specific rite of offering made with an implied gesture. A salutatio refers to a respectful greeting made with an implied gesture. And thus when addressing the gods in prayer it should be taken that a gesture is implied as well.
M Horatius Piscinus, Rector Collegii Religionis