Purification rites
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
Purification is a preliminary to performing any proper ritual, so I begin this string to give it some consideration.


While proposing laws for the religion of an ideal state, Cicero began, "May they approach the gods chastely, may they bring forth piety... (De Legibus II.19)." Later he then explains:

Cicero De Legibus II.x, 24-5: "that is, purity of mind, for everything is included by that. This does not remove the requirement of bodily purity, for in the former case impurity is removed by the sprinkling of water or the passage of a certain number of days, but a mental stain can neither be blotted out by the passage of time nor washed away by any stream. Uprightness is pleasing to the god, but great expenditure is to be avoided?nothing would be less pleasing to a god himself than that the pathway to his favour and to his worship should not be open to all alike."

We can then look at this in its several parts. First is the matter of purification by the sprinkling of water. Festus likewise mentioned that "by custom the new bride was sprinkled with water, so that she might come pure and chaste to her husband... (Fest. 87)." In some instances mention is made that the water to be used in ritual should not come from a pipe, and that it should be running water in order to be regarded pure and clean. This is one reason why the Vestales Virgines had to use only water drawn from a certain spring. In Vergil's Eclogue VIII his enchantress begins, "Bring running water..." Some of the water is sprinkled on the site to purify the space to be used for her ritual. Another portion we may assume was used to purify herself. Cicero's explanation above mentions washing in a stream, and that may be taken in two ways. The stream or running water refers first to the source of the water, but then, too, how it is used. The proper way to conduct a Roman purification by water is to hold the hands over a bowl and have a stream of water poured from a ewer over the hands, rather than by dipping the hands into a bowl of water. Washing of the hands before covering the head for ritual is mentioned in the Actum Fratrum Arvalum. Ovid as well has, "When he has washed his hands clean with fountain water (Fasti 5.435)." The other way though, specifically used by the ugures, is to go to the source of water itself, call out three times to its genius by name, and take up running water into your hands. This water, drawn from a river, is drunk by the augur and allowed to fall from the hands in a stream (Servius Ad Aen. 9.24).

A very different example of a purification by water is afforded in the exceptional case of Juvenal's worshipper of Isis. Similar to Apuleius' Lucius in The Golden Ass, Juvenal's dips her head three times beneath a frigid Tiber in winter. Then naked and on her knees, she returns from the river, crawling across the Campus Martius, to the temple of Isis (Satires 6.522). Her example is alien to the Religio Romana, the practice of a foreign cultus deorum, which serves in its contrast to show the Roman moderate practice of a ritual cleansing of the hands alone. Livy wrote, "For out of all the army, youths were chosen and made to cleanse their bodies and to put on white vestments," before approaching the image of Juno Regina of Veii (A.U.C. V.22.4-5). Roman soldiers out in the field, in the days before soap was discovered, the cleansing of their bodies would not entail what we think today. And there would be no need to assume that they were made to submerge their bodies in a nearby stream, even though Cicero's words might seem to imply it. All that Livy really refers to in a ritual cleansing is the pouring of water over their hands

Another aspect of purification referred to by Cicero is the "passage of a number of days." In preparing for the women's ritual for Ceres, participants were required to abstain from sexual intercourse for nine days, much to the distress of their lovers (Ovid Amores 3.10). Abstinence was also part of the ritual regimen of the flamen Dialis in the very least, and probably among the other flamines as well, at certain times (Ovid Fasti 3.397-8; 5.621-2; 6.226-30; Gellius AN 10.15.30). The other "passage of a number of days" involved fasting. There was a particular day of fasting for Ceres, instituted in 191 BCE (Livy 36.37.4-5). There was also the novendiale sacrum, a fast conducted for nine day for Ceres. In personal practice fast was conducted as part of ritual purification. Most often this only meant the exclusion of certain foods, such as where Seneca gave up onions and meat from his diet, or the many dietary proscriptions of the flamen Dialis. There were several proscriptions placed upon the flamen Dialis and his wife, the flamenica (Gell. 10.15.1-25ff). These were to keep him in a constant state of ritual purity. Whether the same regimen was required of the other flamines at certain times of the year is uncertain, but a couple things do arise elsewhere and may be assumed as commonly accepted purification practices. For example, for some rites it is mentioned that there should be no knots or other bindings in ones garments when performing rituals. The flamen Dialis was also proscribed from wearing any knots or binding, not even so much as a ring unless its band was broken, nor was he to be near any chains. As a sign of purity women often appeared in ritual while barefoot, and in the case of the rite at Lemuria a man also appears barefoot (Ovid Fasti 5.432). The two are related in that donning sandals could also entail bindings on one's feet. The proscription is due to the fact that knots and bindings were used as charms, to hold both good and evil spells, and one is to enter ritual free of such magical influences, and place oneself entirely into the care of the deity approached.

In contrast to what I just wrote on knots in a person's clothing, they do appear on a person's head. Most often we think of these as coronati or garlands as with the decree of the decemvri for a supplicatio made by "men with garlands on their head (Livy 34.55.4)." With the flamines there was the special head wear called an apex. This was a leather cap with its special feature affixed to the top made from a living olive tree, cut and fashioned in a manner similar to a particular sacrifice of an oxen. And this apex was tied on the head with wool fillets drawn beneath the chin and then knotted. There is also mention of woolen fillets wound around the heads of the Fratres Arvales when they performed ritual. In private rites there may be some connection to a bride's special hairstyle of six locks, each tied with fillets, and then brought together. All sacerdotes, we are told, would ask for wool fillets from the Rex Sacorum and the flamines each year at the kalends of February. These fillets were used as but one means of purification (Ovid Fasti 2.21). These woolen fillets were called februa after a Sabine word, taken from the first priest-king, the Sabine Numa Pompilius (Varro L.L. 6.34; Ovid Fasti 2.22). Winding them around an object an odd number of times, a minimum of three times, was considered to bestow ritual purity on an object, as with the altar so prepared in Vergil's Eclogue VIII, or in the bride's rite of winding wool fillets on her husband's door hinges, and other such household charms as Pliny the Elder mentions.

The most important consideration for individual purification, as Cicero gives, is one's "purity of mind." Chastity, fidelity, and virtue each carries a connotation today of a sexual nature due to the influence of Christianity on Western civilization. But to the ancients each of these virtues have to do with fulfilling one's obligations. As an example, chastity means only to remain faithful in a monogamous relationship to which one has committed himself or herself by a vow. It does not mean sexual abstinence as may be implied by a modern, Christian connotation. Fidelity likewise has to do with fulfilling one's obligation undertaken by oath. For a Roman there is a greater sense of meaning in fidelity that a man should care for the people under him, than that he should be loyal to his superiors. There is no greater obligations for a Roman than those of the ius Manorum, i. e. the duties owed to one's ancestors. In order to be "pure in mind," that is, to be certain one has fulfilled all the obligations owed to the Manes, a sacrifice was made. Two such sacrifices are mentioned. The porca praecidaneum was the sacrifice of a pig that was made, according to Varro, "in case one is not buried, the porca praecidanea must be offered by the heir to Tellus and Ceres; otherwise the family is not pure (Nonnius Marcus 163)." Gellius also recalls the sacrifice of a porca praecidanea made to Ceres "for the sake of expiation before the new crops were gathered, either if any had not cleansed the family in mourning, or otherwise had not seen to this matter as had been necessary (Attic Nights 4.6.8)." Modern historians generally comment that Gellius had confused two different rites, but that is unlikely the case. What he refers to is a purification rite being made in preparation for a another ritual of harvesting. The other purification sacrifice is called by Veranius "the porca praesentanea sacrificed to Ceres for the sake of cleansing the family (Festus 250)." Each of the three references are generally thought to pertain to funerary rites and the purification of a family during the period of morning. Elsewhere though we hear of sacrifices made to the Manes as part of a general purification rite, and I am suggesting that the references made to Varro's and Veranius' explanation of terms is actually concerned with these general purification rites, intended to insure that funerary obligations have been properly met. Such would be a very important concern for an augur since he will be mainly calling upon the Manes during the taking of auspices.

In a period leading up to the rite whereby an augur or an individual acting as an auspex will take the auspices, these then are the concerns for personal purification. The period should be a minimum of three days, no more than nine, in which prayers and vows are offered, care is given to attend one's obligations and see that these are up to date; and that sacrifices are offered to Ceres and the Manes. On the final day comes the washing of the hands, donning fresh vestments, and binding the head by woolen fillets or an appropriate garland. During the rite itself the head will be covered by a woolen toga that in itself fills the final requirement. The period is intended to place the individual into a proper, pious state of mind. Therefore each individual should consider adding other things to their private regimen such as changing their diet during the period by fasting or abstaining from certain food and drink, or activities, but there is no specific regimen that need be adopted. Reviewing the regimen placed on the flamen Dialis will give some suggestions to the kinds of things that could be included in a personal regimen and remain within the tradition of the Religio Romana.


The following text is a lex sacra from Selinus in southwestern Sicily, written in Greek and dating to c. 460 BCE:

"If a person wants to purify himself from a elasteroi he is to call on the elasteroi wherever he wants and at whatever point in the year he wants and in whatever month he wants and on whatever day he wants and facing in whatever direction he wants. Then he is to be purified. He is to welcome the elasteroi and give it water for washing the hands, bread, and wine, and he is to give salt to this same elasteroi . He is to sacrifice a piglet to Zeus, to step back from it and turn in a circle. He may then be addressed. He may eat and he may sleep wherever he wish. If someone wants to be purified of the elasteroi of someone outside his family or of a member of his family, one that manifests itself to his hearing or his vision, or any elasteroi at all, he is to be purified in the same way as a murderer, when he is purified of his elasteroi. Once he has sacrificed a full-grown victim on the public altar, he is to be pure. He is to mark off the boundary with salt, sprinkle [it] from a golden cup, and go away. Whenever someone needs to make sacrifice to an elasteroi, he is to sacrifice as he does to the immortal gods. He is to jugulate the victim in such a way that the blood flows into the earth."

Although Greek, contrasts and similarities can give us a better idea of Roman practice. A proper translation of elasteroi is uncertain, so I have left it in Greek. The elasteroi imply the spirit of a deceased person, or perhaps some avenging spirits acting on behalf of the deceased, and there is a connotation that the individual requiring purification is being harassed by the spirit(s). Note the distinctions made from the ambiguous to the specific. The main idea here is that a person who owes an obligation to the spirits of the dead is impure, polluted, and is required to perform a purification rite. Purification is fulfilled by performing a sacrifice that is properly owed to the spirit of the dead. If he is unsure whether he owes any obligation, then he makes a sacrifice anyway, in order to be certain of his purity. This would be done as a precaution before performing some other rite of importance. Since taking the auspices is a form of communicating with the gods, an augur or auspex would perform a purification rite that includes a sacrifice. The form of sacrifice to be made in a purification rite would be the kind one usually uses for the Di Manes. This is especially important since the auspices are regarded to come from the Di Manes rather than from Jupiter as in a public augury.

The Greek inscription indicates spirits of deceased family members, non-family members, and implies other spirits haunting a person that may have been victims of murders he committed. Nero was said to have been haunted by the ghost of his mother, or by his own guilty conscious, and had rites performed (beyond just purification) in an attempt to end her haunting (Suetonius Nero 34). The other two cases, under Roman law of the Ius Manorum, applied when one was a paterfamilias and responsible for the rites owed deceased family members, or where an individual inherited land, whether from a family member or not, and attached to the inheritance was an obligation to maintain rites for the deceased. Several opinions and commentaries were given, one of the better known being that of Mucius Scaevola cited by Cicero (De Legibus 2.51). Scaevola held that whoever inherited the largest portion of an estate also inherited an obligation to maintain the cultus geniale. That was not always the case however. Where there was no heir, family member or estate, the obligation fell upon whoever owed the most money to the deceased. Another case could involve the death of a friend or comrade while away from home, whose spirit then seeks you out to have either proper rites performed or to search out his body. In Roman literature, and in at least one inscription, the spirit of the dead, who died away from home and undiscovered, calls upon a stranger who happens to near the place where the spirit is attached. This last consideration can be important in the taking of auspices, because such a spirit may also be the genius loci of the place concerned in the auspices. The same rite is going to apply since a sacrifice to the genius loci will be made at the beginning of an augury.

The Greek rite calls for a sacrifice made to Zeus. Generally Jupiter would not be considered a god of purification. Purification usually involves the Di Manes and Di inferi because of the close association between the Roman idea of pollution by not fulfilling obligations of Ius Manorum. However, as guardian of oaths, as the god most often sworn by, a sacrifice to Jupiter would be appropriate in a purification rite to assure propitiation for any oath or obligation one had neglected. Then, too, in the auspicia publici Jupiter sends the birds by which an augury proper is made. However in the private auspices, Faunus and Picumnus are regarded to send the birds as signs, and the Di Manes other auspices. In that case Hercules, Dius Fidius, or Semo Sancus could be offered a propitiary sacrifice. Once again though, purification is seen in terms of fulfilling one's obligations.

The details of the Greek rite as given are similar to Roman rites for the Manes. There is the "calling out" (declamatio), there is a marking out and blessing of the boundary in which the sacrifice is to be made, the offerings, then stepping back and turning around (to then make the prayer to the gods), and the detail on the slaughter of the victim of allowing the blood to flow in the earth. I will later cover purification of a locus in a separate post and leave the marking of the boundaries for that. The offerings typically made by Romans to the Di Manes are grain, milk, olive oil, and salt, with flowers (roses and violets mainly) included when given to known Manes. The inclusion of "water for washing the hands" I think is a nice touch, but AFAIK not mentioned among Romans as an offering. Placing offerings on an altar, then stepping back and turning around to make a prayer to the gods to whom the offerings are given is mentioned as the proper Roman practice. It is like setting a table and then inviting guests to be seated around it. In what is mentioned in the text, these parts are similar to what would have been Roman practice, although in the details of performing the rite there would be differences between Greek and Roman practice that have not been mentioned.

The final detail on the sacrifice, the jugulation, distinguishes this rite as Greek from Roman. The manner in which the sacrifice is made occurs in the Roman literature in conjunction with necromancy, defixiones, and with stereotypical witches like Medea. Such sacrifices were made by Romans, but the manner is regarded as a foreign introduction, not properly part of the Religio Romana. Sacrifices made to the Di Manes are to be wholly burned, and that would be the case for a purification. The Roman practice was to collect the blood in lebetes that it could then be placed in the fire as well.

Another point of interest in regard to sacrifices is the Greek text's instruction of a piglet offered to Zeus, in what would be a private rite, contrasted with the requirement for mature victims made on public altars used for private rites. Cato's lustratio (De Agricultura 141) mentions the use of sucklings in a private rite, but cautions that they should never be referred to as sucklings in the rite. They are made in substitution of mature victims, and if they would prove unacceptable another sacrifice would be required. Cato makes a distinction between the unaccepted victims being suouitaurilibus lactentibus and mature suovitaurilibus then offered as a piacular sacrifice. Livy made this distinction as well. For the year 217 BCE, following a long list of prodigies for that year, "the Senate decreed, as an act of purification, sacrifices should be offered both of sucklings and mature victims (22.1.15 partim maioribus hostis partim lactentibus)." While for the same set of prodigies, at Ardea and at Lavinium to Juno Sospita, and for Juno Regina on the Aventine, only mature victims were specifided.

During the Middle Republic certain rites of the Religio Romana were designated to be performed in Graeco ritu. What all distinguished Latin rites from Greek rites is not quite clear. In Latin rites the toga was worn in a special way so that it might be pulled over the head. In the Graeco ritu the head was uncovered. More might be implied but we do not fully know what was meant. It should be pointed out though that Graeco ritu is a Roman form of ceremony, a formal part of the Religio Romana, and in spite of its name it does not mean the adoption of Greek ceremonies and ritual practices performed exactly as a Greek would. The Romans recognized similarities and were careful to distinguish out differences.


All rituals are performed in some location, and so would be true of taking the auspices as well. Speaking very specifically an augury took place only within the pomerium at one of the two permanent stations used by the public augurs. These were the Auguraculumthat was located on the Arx, that is, the northern summit of the Capitoline Hill, and Varro mentions that there was also a second permanent station, the Auguraculum Quirinale on the collis Latiaris (L. L. 5.5.2). Also speaking in a very technical sense an augury can only pertain to certain matters of the State or the general welfare of the Roman people (Servius 3.20; 3.89). Any other matters were considered in auspicia. When taking the auspices, a station used by augurs (stativum augurii) was necessarily a temporary place and thus first had to be prepared.

As with the person of the augur himself, the station to be used must first be purified. Anything used to purify a place or object is called februa. Ovid mentions how spelt was roasted and salted as a februa used by lictores to cleanse a house where someone had died. The spelt was tossed about and then swept from the house (Fasti 2.23-4). Sulphur was also used in this rite. Pliny has, "sulphur has a place in religious ceremonies, namely the purification of houses by fumigation (H. N. 35.117). At the same point Ovid also mentions how priests would ask for wool fillets in February from the Rex Sacrorum and flamen Dialis, which the priests would use to purify altars among other things. Virgil, too, in Eclogue VIII, has:

"Bring water, and with soft wool-fillet bind
These altars round about, and burn thereon
Rich vervain and frankincense..."

In the Argonautica, too, mention is given of an altar meant for a wedding ceremony in which the groom leads his bride three times in a clockwise direction as she winds wool fillets around the altar. Elsewhere we read of the bride's anointing her new husband's house by winding wool on his front door and anointing the hinges. Pliny also mentions that "among the Romans there is no plant that enjoys a more extended renown than ... vervain. It is with this plant that we have already mentioned as being borne in the hands of envoys when treating with the enemy, with this that the table of Jupiter is cleansed, with this that houses are purified and due expiation made (H. N. 25.59)."

From these references we then apply to our own practice, determining what an augur's rite might be to prepare his station. Any place that begins in a spoiled or vitiated state will revert to that status when it is once again polluted (Servius Ad Aen. 2, 178). The temporary nature of a station should be kept in mind. Even if the exact same place is continually used to take your auspices, each time will require a purification rite of the locus. Purification of a space is much dependent on a sacrifice, just as with purification of a person. Only in this case the sacrifice is made primarily to the geni loci of the place, in effect asking for their approval to use the locus temporarily. If by chance a house or other building, or a person out in the open, were to be struck by lightning, then special purification rites would be required. That is where your fumigation of sulphur and the lictores purification of a house would come in. But for all other occassions an initial altar must be set up that will be used throughout the ceremony, and it is this altar that must first be purified, before sacrificing to the geni loci.

The simplest method of building an altar, and the method used in my family, is to cut three sides of a rectangle into the turf and then flip the turf over on the fourth side so that a block of soil is now exposed. Two or three such blocks of turf can be cut to build up a larger altar. Another method is to build a temporary altar of piled stones. In southern Italy, Magna Graecia, terracotta altars were used. Some that I have seen were no larger than a large bread box, intended for marriage ceremonies, while others were quite large and had holes through which to place poles that they might be carried to a funerary site. A tripod and brazier might also be used as became customary later during imperial times. An object like a large stone or tree trunk naturally found at the site might be used to receive libations but should not be used as an altar on which to place a fire. The geni loci of a locus are usually thought to inhabit such a large stone, or a tree, or a spring, so one should take care in how they treat such objects.

The area where the altar is to be built should be swept or debris removed. "Live" water from a flowing spring or river should be sprinkled about. Usually I will use a tea of vervain and a branch of sage, laurel, or rosemary as an asperser. The altar is then built or placed. Its surface is cleansed by scrubbing it with vervain or mints. Mints because the Manes are to be called, but also mints are used to cleanse the tables of Jupiter. Then fillets of wool are wound around the altar, beginning by facing east and walking around in a clockwise direction an odd number of times, but no less than three. The altar is next sprinkled with pure water. Twigs are then built up onto the altar in the manner done at Terminalia (Ovid Fasti 2.647-9). This is made as a structure, loosely stacked sort of in the manner of a corral fence to form a small tower. Kindling is placed inside, perhaps dried herbs, written prayers, that are then lit or else onto which are placed hot coals. Into the resulting fire one first places dried laurel leaves (always an odd number), then vervain to fumigate the area. Smoke from the vervain is observed for signs. It should grow thick, fall to the ground then rise into the air. Finally a sacrifice is offered in the normal manner to the Manes and geni loci.
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