The Semi-Fixed Nature of Greek Domestic Religion

Katherine M. Swinford

University of Cincinnati

Greek domestic religion is a subject which deserves fuller consideration. While numerous studies of ancient Greek religion exist, they focus on the public religion of the ancients, paying little attention to the fundamental unit of the Greek polis, the household or oikos. In contrast to the plethora of texts concerning the civic religion of the Greeks, there is an unfortunate absence of evidence concerning their household religion. One reason for a lack of emphasis on the domestic sphere of religion may be because its practice was so customary as to not require explication or description. In addition, domestic rites included much that was ephemeral: prayers, hymns, food. This paper will integrate ancient literature and material culture, including vase-painting, of the classical period and thus synthesize some of the data available concerning household cult.

From the scant literary evidence we do get a picture of the importance of the goddess Hestia, of the hearth. This association makes the hearth a sacred space in the house, around which several domestic rituals are centered. The amphidromia, the ceremony which introduces a newborn into its household, consists of family members carrying the baby at a run around the hearth. The wedding ceremony ends when the new bride is accepted at the hearth of her new oikos. After the death of a family member, the final ritual consists of offerings to Hestia. These rituals are all centered around the hearth of the oikos. Although literary sources mention hearth-altars, there is little archaeological evidence for built versions. Instead, the usual hearth functions of cooking and heating were supplied by portable braziers, found throughout the Greek world over several centuries.  The hearth may have served not only its usual function, but also as the ritual center of the household. This semi-fixed nature of the hearth may indicate that the nature of domestic religion itself was moveable.

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