Friday, April 12, 2013

PBP: Places of worship: the household

Last year, I wrote my second 'H'-post about my household shrines. Many of them are still pretty much the same as on the pictures there, save for my main altar. I touched upon the household Gods in that post, but I would like to go deeper into them today, and describe the house--or oikos--as a place of worship.


Ancient Hellenic homes were simple structures, made from clay, wood, and stone. The roofs were covered with tiles, or reeds, and the houses had one or two stories. Most houses were small, just a few rooms, with a walled garden or yard in the middle. Others, like the house above, were much larger. They were not solely homes, but often doubled as offices, shops, entertainment areas, and as a place of worship. In many cases, a large wall with a single door connected the house to the street, while insuring maximum privacy tot he occupants of the house. Rooms at the front of the house often served as store rooms or work shops. Other rooms in the house served as bedrooms, as a kitchen, bathroom, and smaller store rooms. Symposia were held in special rooms, reserved only for men. The only women who entered the male-only rooms were serfs. These rooms were called 'andron' (ανδρών).

Female-only rooms were called 'gynaikon' (γυναικῶν). The women of the household--grandmothers, wives, and children, assisted by female serfs--would spend most of their time here, weaving, spinning, entertaining female friends and relatives, and taking care of the children. Men were not allowed to enter these rooms, and a visiting male guest would be punished most severely if he entered the gynaikon. Female serfs slept near the gynaikon in small, lightly furnished, rooms. Male slaves slept in similar rooms, near the andron.

The courtyard of the home often held a bômos, a free standing, raised, altar where the majority of household worship took place. Some houses also had a wall niche, an indoor worship area, either in a room especially designated for worship, or in the main family room. These altars were used to worship the Ephestioi (Εφεστιοι), the most personal of the household Theoi. These almost always included: Hestia, Zeus Ephestios (Overseer of the Hearth), Zeus Kthesios, and Agathós Daímōn. Worship of these deities was highly personal, and many other Theoi could be added to this worship list.

Hestia was represented by the hearth fire that was always kept burning. If it went out, the male head of household would go to the prytaneion (Πρυτανεῖον), the structure where state officials met and where the city kept a fire for Hestia burning day and night, for a new flame. All fires in the house were lit from this one fire, so Hestia would watch over everything and everyone inside the house. Zeus Ephestios was and is a more active defender of the home. He shields the actual structure of the house. Where Hestia watches over the occupants, Zeus Ephestios guards the very walls, the roof, the floor, and any possessions inside the structure. He was worshipped at the main altar.

Zeus Kthesios, I have spoken about before. He guards the pantry, and was honored there as well, where he had his own shrine, often adorned with a kathiskos. Agathós Daímōn and the ancestors were also worshipped at the main altar, although they may have had small shrines to themselves, especially in the case of wall niches.

In the courtyard of the house, the Herkeioi (Ἑρκειοι) were honored: those of the herkos or front court. Most notably, this was Zeus Herkeios (Ἑρκειος), protector of the enclosure of the house. And just outside the house, and especially near the gate to the street, small shrines and altars were placed in honor of the less personal protectors: Apollon (sometimes in his epithet of 'Aguieus' (Ἀγυιεύς), protector of the streets, public places, and the entrances to homes), Hermes Propylaios, Hekate, and especially in Sparta, the Dioskouroi. Hēraklēs sometimes took the place of Apollon.

Zeus Herkeios' altar stood in the courtyard and He, from the inside of the house, protected against anyone wanting to harm the house or the family living in it. These altars were most often pillars, on or around which the offerings could be placed. Hermes, Apollon, and Hekate were represented by a pointy four-sided post. The top was reserved for Apollon, the bottom often held a niche where Deipnon offerings could be placed to Hekate, and Hermes' face (and sometimes his genitalia) was sometimes carved into the post. Hermes sometimes got his own post, called a 'herm', which was a rectangular post, with His face carved on top, and his genitalia carved out on the front.

As I noted in last year's post about household shrines, it's not always possible to reconstruct these altars and shrines. The lay-out of our houses are often different from that in ancient Hellas--and even in ancient Hellas, there were many different types of houses--and the culture has changed. We don't have herms on our front lawns anymore, nor an altar for burnt offerings. Modern Hellenists have had to adapt to the changing times. There is nothing wrong with this. Many amongst us have moved the worship of the Herkeioi inside our homes, to shrines near the front door. Here we pray for the same things as we would do outside, and we can still place our Deipnon offerings here. Most of us can find some space for a kathiskos in the kitchen, and many of us have a shrine to the Theoi where we can burn a candle to invite Hestia, and give burnt sacrifice to the other household deities. Shelves now often replace wall niches.

No matter how you practice household worship, the actual practice is more important than the way you do it: a structured, preferably daily, routine of sacrifice, that follows the Mên kata Theion, the sacred month. worship of the Theoi whom have had a profound influence in your life can be added to these daily rites, as the ancient Hellenes would have done as well. Worship of the Theoi is a cornerstone of Hellenismos, and it all starts at your house.

Image source: herm.

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