Roman Religious and Magical Rituals

Term Paper for Latin I by Darci Clark

Ritual was an essential component of Roman religion and magical practice. The Dictionary of Roman Religion defines ritual as, “an action, or more usually a precise sequence of actions, performed to achieve a religious result.” In order to ensure the favor of the gods, it was necessary for rituals to be performed precisely. A ritual was considered invalid if an error was made during its performance. They also needed to be performed on a specific date and in the traditional order. Even though the person performing the ritual needed to show respect to the gods, his attitude, whether fervent or indifferent, did not have any effect on the outcome of the ritual. Roman ritual consisted of sacrifice, offerings, prayers, and vows. Romans also practiced other forms of ritual including divination, magic, and curses.

Most religious acts included a sacrifice as an offering. A domesticated animal, usually a pig, sheep, or cow, was used. The animals were chosen based on the god for whom the sacrifice was intended. Female animals were sacrificed to goddesses; castrated male animals were sacrificed to all the male gods, with the exception of Neptune, Janus, and Mars who received unneutered animals. Even the color of the sacrificial animal was significant. Dark coated animals were given to underworld gods, such as Pluto, while white coated animals were given to the upper world gods. The animals were washed and finely adorned.

2nd Century AD Roman Marble Sacrifice Relief

The ritual took place at sunrise at the altar of the deity to be honored. The first part of the sacrifice was called the “preface” or praefatio. The person who requested the sacrifice poured wine and incense into a fire at the altar in honor of the god. This symbolized the immortality and superiority of the gods. The next step was consecrating the offering, called the immolation, or immolatio. Salted flour was sprinkled on the animal’s back, and wine poured on his brow. Then the sacrificial knife was run along the animal’s back. These steps symbolized the transfer of the animal from human possession to the god’s possession. After this transfer was completed, the animal was sacrificed by stunning him with a blow before stabbing him with the sacrificial knife. It was crucial that nothing disturbed the ceremony, since that would indicate an unfavorable omen. If anything caused a disruption the entire process would have to begin again with a new sacrifice. Music was played and the priest kept his head covered to prevent the sound of ill-omens. If no disturbances occurred the animal’s blood was poured on the altar and its entrails were examined. Normal entrails signified the god’s acceptance of the sacrifice, but any abnormalities would result in the sacrifice needing to be performed again. The entrails were frequently used for divination as well.

The next step was to divide up the animal for the sacrificial banquet. The entrails were cooked and given to the gods by placing them in the altar fire. Occasionally the gods were also given sweet wine and cakes. At this time ritual participants could ask favors of the gods. In some ritual sacrifices, called blood sacrifices, the animal was given entirely to the gods. They were performed at burial ceremonies and at times of crisis. Instances of human sacrifice were rare, but some were recorded in the third century B.C. The Senate outlawed human sacrifice in 97 B.C.

1st Century BC Roman Curse Tablet

Sacrifice was also used in magical rituals. These types of sacrifices were considered a crime if the performer’s intent of the ritual was to inflict physical or material damage on another citizen. In contrast to most sacrifices, which were civic events, magical sacrifices were performed in secret at night. Even though magical practices were considered illegal and dangerous, many people still performed them. While traditional Roman religious rituals only asked the gods for something, practitioners of magic attempted to make something happen. Common tools for magical practitioners were curse tablets.

Curse tablets were made of small, thin sheets of lead which were rolled into scrolls and inscribed with a spell. Spells consisted of a request for justice from a god when the practitioner had been wronged, or to invoke a demon to eliminate a rival. It was believed that a written curse was more powerful than a spoken one. The tablet could then be thrown into water or placed near a tomb or battlefield near the spirits of the dead. The spirits could then carry out the practitioner’s curse or bring the message to the gods.

The following is the text of a curse tablet intended for two teams of charioteers. The tablet, from the late Empire, was found in Africa:

I conjure you, daemon, whoever you may be, to torture and kill, from this hour, this day, this moment, the horses of the Green and the White teams; kill and smash the charioteers Clarus, Felix, Primulus, Romanus; do not leave a breath in them. I conjure you by him who has delivered you, at the time, the god of the sea and the air: Iao, Iasdao…aeia.

Curse tablets, such as this one, have been found throughout the Roman Empire. The private vow against an enemy, also known as deuotio or defixio, was even used against Germanicus in AD 19. Germanicus was the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius who died from a mysterious illness. Either poison or black magic was suspected in his death. The Roman historian, Tacitus gave this account in Annals 2.69:

[Under the floor and between the walls of Julius Ceasar Germanicus’ residence workmen found] the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes and other implements of magic by which, it is believed, the soul [the life force] of a person can be devoted [surrendered, delivered] to the powers of the grave.

Similar to the curse texts, voodoo dolls were also used in spells against enemies. Some dolls were wrapped in lead sheets inscribed with the curse victim’s name, or even the dolls themselves could be made of lead. Other dolls have been discovered made of bronze, clay, wax or terracotta. The voodoo dolls represent the victim bound, either with visible binding or by the positioning of the arms and legs. Often the neck and legs were twisted violently which did not represent an intended injury to the victim, but a distortion to confuse the design.

4th Century AD Greco-Roman Voodoo Doll

None of the dolls were designed to physically portray the intended victim, but the victim’s name was inscribed which apparently effectively represented him. Voodoo dolls could also be designed in the form of animals. Horse figures, inscribed with animal and human names, were used in a spell against a charioteer. Animal figures could also be used instead of human figures to represent a certain aspect of a spell against a human victim. Voodoo dolls, as well as curse tablets, could be rendered useless and the curse ineffective if their hiding place was discovered by the intended victim.

All forms of Roman religious and magical rituals required the use of prayers which were recited while specific actions were performed. Even though the physical actions of a ritual could be repeated or corrected if an error was made, the prayer could not be changed once it was spoken. Practitioners had to carefully pronounce the names of the gods they were invoking since one error could change the entire meaning of the prayer. To avoid these kinds of errors most prayers were read directly from written texts or were dictated by an assistant. Magical practitioners claimed to know the secret names of the gods which made their prayers more powerful.

Divination was another important Roman ritual. It was performed by augurs, oracles, readers of entrails (haruspices) and individual citizens. Augurs interpreted signs from the gods (auguries) but did not request signs from the gods (auspices). The gods spoke through an oracle to answer questions directly to worshippers. Haruspices not only interpreted the entrails of sacrificial animals, they interpreted unnatural events and flashes of lightning. Individual citizens practiced divination through dream interpretation and astrology. Magical practitioners even used necromancy, summoning the spirits of the dead to do the will of the living, for divination since it was believed the dead could foretell the future.

Rituals were integral to Roman religious and magical practice. Animal sacrifices were the most common form of offering to the gods. Magical practitioners used curse tablets and voodoo dolls to exact revenge or eliminate their rivals. It was vital that all spoken prayers or spells during a ritual were performed exactly or the outcome of the ritual could be seriously affected or declared invalid. Since the approval of the gods was central to Roman belief, several forms of divination were practiced to make requests of the gods or ascertain their assent on a particular subject. Civic religious events as well as secretive magical practices both attempted to achieve results though similar traditional ritual practices.


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