Roman rite: an example

The modern concept of sacrifice is that of something costly or hard, painful if not deadly, but needed to fulfill a goal. In that, there is a trace of the original meaning of the word, namely in the notion of exchange, but the ancient sacrificium had a more formal sense and referred to the act of making (facio) sacred (sacer), which is a matter of ownership, not necessarily of the effort put into it. In other words, it was the religious equivalence of a transaction, whereby something was made property of the Gods or sacred. And just as in our lives there are formal and informal exchanges, the same is true for our interactions with deities: I can offer a friend a drink, give him a gift or sell something for a symbolic price, just as I can pour beverage or wheat on the ground, river or beach, by a tree or on a cairn as an informal sacrifice; or I can sell or buy something in the presence of a lawyer or by means of a formal and legally binding record, just as I can make a sacrifice with a ceremony, complete with witnesses and a ritualized transaction. Things like buying a car or selling a house or, in the religious equivalent, a vow or a festivity that’s annual and therefore special.

What follows is my Roman rite, translated into English from Portuguese. I say “my”, because it’s the version I constructed based on primary sources (like Cato’s De Agricultura or Ovid’s Fasti), following modern orthopraxy and based on my experience – which is to say on the repetition, reformulation and constant perfecting of gestures and words, year after year, festivity after festivity. And it’s my Roman rite because there can be alternative versions of it with more or less gods in the opening and closing sections or steps in-between or with a different wording. Here too there is no uniformity, just unity in a set of basic elements that must be part of the ritual structure, but without precluding the addition or variation of others.

There are three essential parts in my version of the Roman rite: preface, sacrifice and epilogue; or to put it differently, the before, during and after a formal transaction of goods. The second part is subdivided into several moments, since it’s the focal section and therefore more complex. It is also structured with the use of a ritual fire in mind, even when the main deity is terrestrial or chthonic, in which case the principle offerings are collected in a circular bowl with soil and the fire is used, for instance, to burn the opening and closing tributes. However, in the case of a flameless sacrifice, adaptations can be easily made. As for preparation, it essentially comes down to a clean ritual space, as well as washed clothing, face and hands, at least in the case of the person performing the gestures and uttering the words. If one so wishes, one can have a bowl with water nearby and use it to wash hands between every stage of the ceremony, which also serves to mark the transition from one section to another. You can also use background music, something for which there is historical precedent (though today modern technology can replace actual musicians) and resort to a written script so as to reduce the likelihood of mistakes.


Roman Rite

1. Preface
After lighting the ritual flame and covering my head with a small towel, I make a first offering to Janus with the inside of my hands facing up:

Hail to you, Janus, God of Beginnings, Lord of Commencements! Janus the Guardian, Janus the Elder, Janus the first among Gods and Men. To you, Father Janus, I salute before all others on the opening of this ceremony. I give you these first words, a first homage, and to you I give the first offerings, freely and with good heart.

I then offer incense and a libation of wine, poured separately into the ritual fire with the following words:

To you, Father Janus, with good prayers and good heart, I offer this portion of incense I now pour into the flames, hoping you look kindly on this house and those who dwell in it. And to you, Father Janus, I offer also this portion of wine I now pour into the flames, asking you to bless the start of this ceremony, oh God of Beginnings.

I then salute Vesta, palms turned towards the ritual fire, and offer Her incense and a libation of milk with the following words:

Hail to you, Vesta, the Fire Virgin! To you, Mother Vesta, I pay tribute at the start of this ceremony, with good prayers and good heart, freely, offering you this portion of incense I now pour into the flames, hoping you look kindly on this house and those who dwell in it. And to you, Mother Vesta, I offer also this libation of milk I now pour into the flames, asking you to bless them, oh Flaming Virgin, so that they may burn bright and consume the offerings placed in them.

And finally Jupiter, who’s saluted with palms facing up and receives incense and a libation of wine with the following words:

Hail to you, Jupiter, King of the Gods, Lord of Heavens and Thunder! To you, Father Jupiter, I pay tribute at the start of this ceremony, with good prayers and good heart, freely, offering you this portion of incense I now pour into the flames, hoping you look kindly on this house and those who dwell in it. And to you, Father Jupiter, I offer also this libation of wine I now pour into the flames, asking you to testify and sanctify this ceremony, oh High God.

2. Sacrifice
The exact list of what is needed for this part of the ceremony depends on the format of the main offerings. If the goal is to give something that is then served for human consumption, the food must be consecrated in full, a small portion sliced and placed in the flames, while the rest is ritually made profane again. In that case, I need to have the necessary cutlery at hand. Alternatively, I can offer small portions previously set aside, in which case all I do is a basic consecration by sprinkling them with salted wheat flour before placing them in the fire. When that’s the case, no ritual profanation is needed.

    I. After washing my hands in a bowl with water, the main deity is saluted with a prayer or hymn and invited to attend the ceremony. Its general reason is stated (e.g. on this Saturnalia or New Year) and a welcoming offering made, which can be a small portion of incense, a libation or a laurel leaf placed in the ritual fire;

    II. The main offerings are listed by the order in which they’ll be placed in the flames and then I state the purpose of the ceremony and what I want in return, if anything. Example:

    Hail, Father Janus, Lord of Beginnings! On these Calends of January, oh God of Commencements, I bring you offerings of wine, bread, cheese and honey, which I give to you with good prayers and good heart, wishing to honour you on this day of yours, this New Year, and that you look kindly on this home and those who dwell in it, granting us your blessing and protection throughout the twelve months that start today;

    *III. This step corresponds to the old immolation, a word born out of mola salsa or salted wheat flour, which was sprinkled on the sacrificial victims so as to consecrate them; the records of the Arval Brothers, an ancient Roman religious
    society, suggest also the use of wine and a knife. In the absence of animal sacrifices, this part of the ceremony is nonetheless needed when I choose to consume the offerings as opposed to giving them entirely to the Gods. To that end, they’re sprinkled with salted wheat flour and a knife or spoon – depending on the type of food –is passed over the offering. The gestures are accompanied by words like “to you [god/dess X] I give this [Y] with good prayers and good heart”;

    IV. If I opt for small portions previously set aside, they’re sprinkled with salted wheat flour and placed in the ritual fire, one by one, with a small prayer. Example:

    To you, Father Janus, I offer this portion of honey on which I now sprinkle salted flour and pour into the flames, with good prayers and good heart, wishing to honour and please you with it.

    Clarity is paramount! What is given is what is poured, not what I have in hands, otherwise the traces of food left in the cutlery will also be property of the Gods. If I opt for consecrating food I then take for human consumption, this is also the step where I place a small portion in the ritual fire, but without having to sprinkle it;

    V. After placing the offerings in the flames, I must take into consideration the possibility that they were rejected or perhaps displeasing in some way. To that end, either divination is resorted to or an expiatory offering is made;

    VI. Having honoured the deity to whom the ceremony is dedicated, I can burn additional offerings: for instance, to my Family Lares as gods of the hearth; if it’s the Calends, Nones or Ides, the incense and wine previously given to Janus, Juno or Jupiter along with my morning prayers; in the New Year ceremony, given its inaugural status, I use this step to honour other deities of importance to me or my family (including our dogs); and as a devotee of Mercury, this is also when I give the son of Maia something like a portion of wine, cinnamon, jam or chocolate;

    *VII. This step matters only if in part III. I consecrated food I wish to return to the human sphere so that it can be eaten. To that end, I wash my hands and, raising them, state my intent. Example:

    Hail, Father Janus, to whom with good prayers and good heart I offered chestnut bread. To you I consecrated it and to you I burned part of it. Now I ask you to share with us what is yours, so that sitting at your table we may be blessed by you. With my right hand I touch your offering and take it with your permission;

    VIII. A final expiatory offering is made, given that the first was solely regarding the main offerings and after that there were steps VI and VII. Example of a corresponding prayer:

    If anyone was offended during this ceremony, if any god or goddess was displeased by words I said, gestures I made or offerings I presented, I offer this portion of incense I now pour into the flames as expiation, so that you may still look kindly on this house and those who dwell in it.

3. Epilogue
The closing of the ceremony consists of libations to the same gods as in opening section, but in reversed order. Thus, after washing my hands in a bowl with water, it starts with an offering of wine to Jupiter with the following prayer:

Hail, Father Jupiter! I thank you for your attention and blessing and offer you still, with good prayers and good heart, this portion of wine I now pour into the fire, in grateful tribute to you.

This is followed by a libation of milk to Vesta with identical words and then Janus is given his with a slightly different prayer:

Hail, Father Janus, the Guardian, He of the Doorways. With you this ceremony started, with you it ends; with an offering to you it was opened, with an offering to you it is closed. I tkank you, Father Janus, for your attention and blessing and offer you still, with good prayers and good heart, this portion of wine I now pour into the flames, in grateful tribute to you and asking you, Father Janus, to bless the conclusion of this ceremony, just as with a libation I asked to you bless its beginning.

As with everything in life, there are nuances that depend on the circumstances and, in this case, the nature of the gods to whom a ceremony is dedicated, not to mention the possibility of Romanized rites, which may differ in the sacrificial section. Specifically:

    a. The ritual structure above is the one I use for annual ceremonies – like New Year or Mercuralia – though for monthly sacrifices alone, as in the Calends, Nones or Ides, it tends to be simpler. For instance, the opening offerings are just libations and the central part normally comes down to steps IV and VIII only, since I usually make my offerings together with my morning prayers, placing them on the corresponding domestic shrines to be burned later. The ceremony thus sort of serves the purpose of finishing the sacrifice rather than including it entirely;

    b. In case there’s no ritual fire, the prayers given above naturally have to be changed so as to remove all the references to flames. Similarly, tributes to Vesta may be unnecessary and can be removed if one uses bowls to collect all the offerings instead of burning them;

    c. The rite above was constructed with celestial and terrestrial deities in mind, in which case the hand used to pour the offerings is the right, though in the case of infernal gods, the left hand is employed and the right one may be used to make a manu fico (see point 7 on the list of gestures in the beginners’ guide);

    d. There’s also the possibility of creating variations for non-Roman deities. An historical example is the so-called Greek rite, which, despite its name and as John Scheid once wrote, was in fact a very Roman ritual. It had Hellenic elements that made it somewhat exotic, yes, but its basic structure was Latin. And it was used for deities seen as being Greek, of which Apollo is the obvious example, though there was no clear or uniform criterion. For instance, Saturn was worshipped in Greek rite, despite being a Roman god, and the Dioscouri, though clearly from Greece, appear to have been accepted as Roman and were thus honoured with a corresponding rite. There’s no obvious link between origin and ritual format, yet there’s still a sense of orthopraxy, i.e. of respect towards the native traditions of “foreign” or at least unassimilated gods;

    e. Specifically, Greek rite distinguishes itself by the use of Greek words, the uncovering of the head during the sacrifice, barley and water as opposed to wheat and wine when consecrating the offerings. In my case, also the use of Homeric hymns when inviting the may deity. Otherwise, it’s identical to the Roman rite;

    f. Using Greek rite as a model, one can create Romanized ritual structures for gods and goddesses from other traditional pantheons, like Norse or Egyptian. However, keep in mind the orthopraxy and its consequences regarding religious identity: if the opening and closing sections, as well as the basic Latin ritual rules are kept, then one’s cult to those deities will still be within the limits of Roman polytheism, even if it has exterior elements; otherwise, the rite may be somewhat Romanized, but it’s something else. And if that makes up most of your practices, then you’ll also be something else, religiously speaking. There’s nothing wrong with that, but words do have meanings.