Reconstructing Proto-Indo-European ritual involves more difficulties than reconstructing the language does. The nature of our sources and the indeterminacy of our methodology combine to create many question, most of which do not yet have convincing answers.
The sources vary in type and quantity, varying from tradition to tradition. Some are more useful or reliable than others.
As always, the queen of reconstruction is linguistics. From this we are able to reconstruct a few ritual phases and metaphors (Matasovic, 1996; Watkins, 1995). We are even able to reconstruct a PIE prayer style. (Again, see Watkins for an extended, if technical, treatment.) We may even squeeze meaning from unconnected words. That words for “pray” and “pour (a libation)” were derived, in different languages, from the same root, *ǵheu- (Kurke, 1989), is certainly significant; that “barley” and “ritual law” are identical in their nominative singular forms (*yewos; the first is a masculine o-stem, and the second a neuter s-stem, so they are different in other cases and numbers) may be.
The other sources are archaeological and verbal.
Archaeological information is of several types:
1. The most valuable for our purpose is the depiction of actual rituals. We find these in Greece and Rome. They are on pots, frescos, mosaics, and sculptures.
2. Sacred space. We of course learn their construction of them was, in both form and materials. Sometimes we are lucky enough to catch glimpses of the ritual of their construction. Foundation sacrifices are widespread, for instance. In the case of Navan, we are even more fortunate; through a combination of dendrochronology and pollen analysis we can pin down one ritual to a year and season (Robertson, 1992).
3. Artifacts. These include ritual tools and gear, such as the “crown” from Hockwold-cum-Wilton, or tools, such as the spoons from the Thetford treasure (Johns and Potter, 1983), and the numerous drink strainers from the continent.
4. Burials. A burial can say a lot about the funeral ritual. Burials are also often the source of artifacts. There is, for instance, the large cauldron from Hochdorf, which contained a mead which included a hundred different herbs (Enright, 1996, 134-135; and Biel, 1991, 125-128).
The other type, the clearest but tricky, source is verbal. This includes the style elements I’ve already mentioned, with the prayers they are reconstructed from. We have, for instance, Cato’s prayer to Mars in De agricultura, the many prayers from the Greek tragedies, the Vedic ritual texts, and so on .
Verbal sources are of two types, which I will call texts and reports.
Texts are descriptions of rituals by those performing them. We have ritual manuals from Anatolia (e.g., those given in McMahon, 1991), the Umbrian Bronze Tablets of Iguvium (Poultney, 1959), and the embarrassment of riches in the Brāhmaṇas, Puranas, and Sūtras from India. These are sometimes frustrating, when they assume knowledge we don’t possess. The most famous example of this is the still-unknown identity of the plant used for Vedic soma. The texts are still priceless, though.
By “reports” I mean ancient descriptions by people other than those performing them. These can be from the same culture as the performers (e.g., some of the rituals in Ovid’s Fasti), or from others, such as Pliny the Elder’s famous account of druids harvesting mistletoe (Natural History 16:95). The latter have to be used carefully; they often come from people with agendas, such as barbarizing the enemy or presenting people as “noble savages.” Pliny, for instance, was a Roman, describing the enemy Gauls. Used carefully, however, reports can supplement our knowledge greatly.
Finally, there are survivals. These must be used even more carefully. The hardest part is determining what a survival is, as opposed to a more recent creation. There is a tendency to believe that any folk custom must be a survival of Paganism, as if new customs are never created, or as if non-Pagans are incapable or unmotivated to create them. (Hutton (1999, ch. 7, 112-131) discusses some of the problems with this.)
Nonetheless, survivals do have value. The clearest is the Zoroastrian rituals (described in detail in Modi), which preserve pre-Zoroastrian rituals to a remarkable degree.
Keeping all this in mind, with both sources and accompanying caveats, my PIE rituals are formed from these, in order of importance:
1. Reconstructed words and phrases. There are too few phrases to be of much use, unfortunately.
2. Implication of reconstructed words and phrases. Examples are *ǵheu- and *yewos, and mentioned above. There is also the case that we know that PIEs “oriented” themselves because words for both “right” and “south” often come from the same root (*déḱsinos > Latin dexter, “right;” Skt. dakṣina “south”).
3. Reconstructed ritual elements. These are reconstructed in the same way that mythology is. For instance, evidence from Irish, Germanic, Roman, and Iranian sources make it clear that sacred space was marked out with a metal instrument. We also know that PIE hearths and the temples of the hearth goddess were circular based on Irish, Roman, Greek, and Vedic evidence.
4. Reconstructed ritual principles. It is clear that sacrifice was central to PIE rituals, that it could have certain meanings, and that, if necessary, the animal could be replaced by bread, as it was in Zoroastrianism.
5. Comparative mythology. Although it is not true, as some believe, that rituals are enacted myths (or that myths are based on rituals), there is certainly a connection. To be sure, the relating of myths can be part of rituals; one need only read the Rig Veda or Homeric Hymns to see that. I have incorporated a reconstructed “Theft of the Sacred Drink” into my Nekter ritual, for instance.
More important, myths include pieces of rituals, or things that can be used to create or enrich ritual. For instance, the association between a woman offering a cup of ale and sovereignty in Baile in Scail, reflected in some Irish coronation rituals, is echoed throughout the Indo-European world (Watkins, 1978), and the Dindshenchas of Loch Gabar (Gwynn, 1924, IV:183) finds an echo in the horse sacrifice ritual found in “The Life of St. Molasius of Devenish” (O’Grady, 1892; I:25-6, II:24-5).
A good example of how I’ve used this is in the Nekter ritual. The female guardian(s) of the sacred drink is found in Norse, Greek, and Indic myth, even though it is only among the western Indo-Europeans that it is found in ritual. I believe that this ritual emphasis is strong enough to include.
At the other end of the spectrum, I was unable to use anything from Albania, and only one seasonal custom from Armenia (and even that was originally Iranian). This was due to the nature of the evidence; Armenia became Christian too early, and Albania was too influenced by Islam, to provide much.
The Baltic and Slavic cultures provided more information, but not much more; for the basic ritual only the support for the name *Perkʷū́nos, the structure of sacred space, and the practice of sacred fires.
Among the Celts, for the basic ritual, Ireland provided information on sacred fires, the creation of sacred space with a sharp metal object, and the ability to claim the sacrificial stake as PIE (O’Grady, 1892; I:25-6, II:24-5), as well as on kingship ritual, with its attendant sacred drink and horse sacrifice. Because of the extreme lateness of our sources, all we have from Wales concerns divination, which, however, also includes information on the use of sacrifice and sacred drink (see my essay on Indo-European divination). There is a lot on information of sacred space from the British Romano-Celtic period, but that’s all.
From the continental Celts, there is Pliny’s mistletoe ritual; while detailed, it doesn’t say much that helps in PIE ritual reconstruction and isn’t supported by any other text. We have curse tablets and ex voto offerings, but they aren’t of much help either. There is a fair amount of information on sacred space, however, both its material and its ritual construction.
The Germanic peoples are slightly more useful. Susan Mary Neff (1980) collected the evidence for Germanic sacrifice into one place. The sagas relate short rituals, the poems in the Poetic Edda might have had ritual use, and we have what appears to be a sacred space ritual in the Anglo-Saxon charms (Grendon, 1909, A13; 173-7).
In Anatolia, the Hittites left behind ritual instruction texts. The problem is, Hittite religion was so strongly influenced by the surrounding non-Indo-European peoples that it is difficult to tell what is Indo-European and what isn’t. I think that as work continues, this will become easier, and Hittite ritual will become more and more important in the understanding of IE ritual. Unfortunately, that is for the future, and I have not used Hittite sources.
When we reach Greece and Rome, we find, if not as much as in India, still a large amount of information. We find not just texts, but images, which give a perspective difficult to find in India. In Greece these are on pottery and in stone on temples. Some of the pottery is extremely easy to interpret, with mythical characters labeled. In Rome the images are in the form of reliefs, frescoes, and mosaics. There are even reliefs which depict steps in a sacrifice, like a cartoon strip.
There is, of course, a large amount of textual information. The Iliad and the Odyssey describe ritual; mostly prayers, but the latter provides detailed instructions for a ritual to the dead (Book 11). The plays, both tragedies and comedies, include prayers, and other parts of rituals. The Homeric Hymns are a good example of what was recited at sacrifices. It is likely that they were used like the Rig Veda or Poetic Edda.
Roman textual sources are more limited. Ovid’s Fasti, is, of course, concerned only with seasonal rituals, but parts of those are common to other rituals. Cato’s prayers, and his description of the suovetaurilia (De Agricultura, 141) describe other rituals. And so on.
Of special interest is what we know about the ritual of the Arvales Fratres. Our information comes primarily from their own records, the Acta Fratrum Arvalium, which allow us to reconstruct their rituals in uncommon detail. If we learn nothing else from this, it is that Roman rituals were far more complex than our other information allows us to reconstruct. (These are discussed, along with comparisons to Vedic ritual, in Woodard, 2006, a book which greatly influenced my sacred space ritual.)
Good summaries of a typical Roman sacrifice are in Ogilvie (1969, 43-51) and Scullard (23-4). Much information on Greek sacrifice is presented by Burkert (1985, especially 56-7).
The Bronze Tablets of Iguvium (Poultney, 1959) are a precious find. Written in Umbrian, a language closely related to Latin, they are the only extent liturgical handbook from the western IE world. These seven tablets describe some of the rituals of the priestly fraternity of the Atiedian Brothers in Iguvium at the time of the Roman republic. Although they describe only a relatively small number of rituals, assume we know certain things we don’t, and present linguistic problems (they are our only record of the Umbrian language, and not all the words are clear) they are a priceless source.
And so we return to the Indo-Iranian world. The people of Nuristan, also called the Kalasha, have been described in fair detail by Robertson (1896). There are even films of their rituals, some of which were filmed by Georg Morgentstierne in the early 20th century; others can be found on youtube. The Kalasha are, in fact, the last surviving IE Pagans. Unfortnately, what we know about their rituals doesn’t fit in well with what we know about other IE cultures (which alone should give us pause in our reconstructions), so more study of it is necessary.
As I have said, Zoroastrian ritual seems very ancient. This should be no big surprise, since ritual is very conservative, but that so much Pagan ritual has survived the Zoroastrian reform is fortunate.
Among the Zoroastrian rituals, the yasna is the central, both to Zoroastrianism and to us (Modi, 260-329). It is a sacred drink ritual, cognate with the Vedic yajña, in which hom (or haoma; cognate with Vedic “soma”) is made and consumed. The yasna includes a truncated sacrifice, the dron, in which, under Indian influence, bread has replaced the animal. In fact, we have a Pahlavi text which contains descriptions of what animals are allowed for it (Jamaspasa, 1985). In Iran, however, at least as late as 1964, animals were still being used (Boyce, 1989).
The yasna and yajña are cognate not just in name but in form. Big differences include that the yajña is much more elaborate, and in the yasna there are long parts dedicated to the chanting of Zoroastrian hymns, similar to the Vedas, which in the Vedic ritual are recited in shorter bursts, often simply quotations of a few lines.
Both are developments of an Indo-Iranian ritual of preparation and consumption of *sauma; neither is the ur-ritual, of course. I think, however, that the Iranian yasna is closer to the Indo-Iranian one. Vedic ritual has across the board been deliberately elaborated, with, for instance, the number of priests going as high as 17 (Houben, 2009). The arguments in the Brāhmaṇas about which form of a ritual is the proper one also indicates that one version is considerably more elaborate than another. If I had to reconstruct an Indo-Iranian sacrificial ritual, then, I would take the yasna, restore the actual animal sacrifice, replace the Zoroastrian hymns with Pagan ones, and make only a few smaller changes based on Vedic evidence. It has been a continual struggle to avoid an the huge amount of Vedic evidence to overwhelm the Iranian (a problem with the greater questions of PIE reconstruction), however.
Why is this important in the reconstruction of PIE ritual? First, the end of the period of Indo-Iranian unity lasted until the late third, early second millennium BCE (West, 2997, 9). Since the PIE culture broke up around 3500 BCE, this brings us closer to it by far than we can reach through reconstructions involving the other IE cultures.
Second, this reconstruction is consistent with the other IE cultures. Other than the use of whatever plant was used for *sauma as a replacement for PIE *medhu-, there is nothing in it which is strongly non-IE, giving us confidence that the Indo-Iranian ritual was IE, and very early IE at that.
Third, the Indo-Iranians lived close to where the PIEs lived. This means that they lived in an area with similar climate, and thus had a similar economy. They also, like the PIEs, practiced transhumance, a custom with a strong influence on ideology. Since Pagan religion is strongly correlated with climate, agriculture, and herding practices, it is reasonable that there had been few differences between the religion of the PIEs and the Indo-Iranians (less that that between other cultures and PIE, at least).
I have therefore used Indo-Iranian ritual extensively in my reconstruction of the PIE calendar of festivals, the consecration and consumption of the sacred drink, sacred space structure and consecration, and, to a lesser extent, the basic sacrificial ritual.
When you come right down to it, then, reconstructing PIE ritual primarily uses material from four places: Rome. Greece, Iran, and India, with the other regions supplying only the occasional bit of confirmation of the elements found in these four.
All these sources provided the bare bones of a reconstruction of PIE ritual. In order to make ones worth performing, I had to flesh them out. I did that with the following:
1. Prayers written in an Indo-European style. Of my methods, I think I was least successful in this. PIE prayers are very elaborate and carefully constructed, and I simply don’t have the talent or the understanding of poetry to write properly constructed PIE prayers, even in English. I hope that others will be inspired to do that, and that they will send them to me so I can post some of them here.
2. Elements that are found in one or more IE traditions, but not enough or widespread enough to be reconstructed to the PIEs. For these, I chose things that fit into reconstructed parts of the ritual and IE ritual theory.
One example is the call to silence, which is found only in Greece (Burkert, 1985, 73; Lambert, 1993,296) and Rome (Scullard,1981, 24). Greek examples are from the Iliad 171 (p. 237), “A reverent silence now … a prayer to Zeus,” and Euripedes, “Iphigenia in Aulis” 1563-4, “Then Talthybius, standing in the midst,/According to his office, spoke, proclaiming/A holy silence to the army.” A Roman example comes from Tibullus, 2.1.1, “faveat” (from favēre [linguis]), translated by Woodard (2006, 129) as “keep silent.” It is consistent with the common IE concern that rituals be done properly: anything extraneous does not belong in a ritual (or it wouldn’t be extraneous), and it might, therefore, disturb, destroy, or even reverse the desired effect of the ritual. With the IE beliefs as to the importance of speech, extraneous words are the most dangerous interventions.
We don’t, to my knowledge, find this admonition in the eastern IE world, which prevents a sure reconstruction, but we do find there a concern with the “right” words to be said at each point in a ritual. Here the emphasis on the production of the right rather than on the prevention of the wrong, but the principle is the same.
The call to silence was not an admonition to maintain actual silence. How could it be when prayers were to be said and songs sung? It directed those present to say nothing that did not belong in the ritual. It had a flip side; it meant that whatever was said was part of the ritual, even if unintended. We can see this in Rome, where the sacrificer covered his head with a fold of his toga and flutes played, both in an attempt to prevent ill-omened words from being overheard and being woven into the ritual. We see it also in India, where what is said is carefully circumscribed so as to prevent inappropriate words from being spoken.
In the end, then, what is only western IE turns out to express a good Indo-European principle. Not PIE, perhaps, but one of several ways in which a PIE problem was solved.
3. Things that, to put it plainly, I made up. Indo-European rituals were very complex, and I believe that PIE ones were as well. Even with the addition of IE but non-PIE elements, my rituals were simpler than PIE rituals probably were. There were therefore things that I deliberately added to make the rituals more complex. The treatment of the rope which “ties” the sacrifice is an example. In our pictures of Greek and Roman sacrifices the animal is held by a rope attached to a halter, or by the halter itself. It is in India that we find a complex treatment of a sacrificial post – what kind of wood, what size, what rituals surrounded it, etc. Outside of India, it is only possibly in Ireland that we find a sacrificial stake, or rather a tree used as a sacrificial stake.
Please do not misunderstand. I didn’t throw things in willy-nilly. My concerns were that these additions be consistent with IE ideology, as well as fitting in in an aesthetically pleasing way. I didn’t want to include just any old thing; my additions had to fit well. I wanted an organic unity, not a clean structure dripping with add-ons, some baroque monstrosity. The extent that readers can’t pick out which things like this that I added is the extent to which I succeeded.
I'm in the process of writing a commentary on these rituals which includes a point by point accounting for the source(s) of individual parts. This is an on-going process,and will involve working on pieces, posting them, and then modifing as necessary. So far I've posted a discussion of why the sacrificer uses an axe to kill the "animal," and am working on one on ritual garb. I'll post as I finish each section. In the meantime, readers interested in the sources of particular elements are invited to write to me and I will do my best to answer their questions.
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Come, Ever Come
Creating Sacred Space
The Domestic Cult