Hellenic household worship

Hellenic household worship

Written by Christos Pandion Panopoulos for Labrys

Edited and translated by Lesley Madytinou & Rathamanthys Madytinos



The Oikos (Household) is of especial significance for Hellenes. It is not only associated, as is common today, with the house as a dwelling but the term includes the members of the family [1], the building with its contents as well as that which is the topic of this essay; namely the household worship and family traditions. Often the misconception exists amongst those belonging to the Hellenic religion that its main expression is centred on the festivals of the Polis and the Mystery Cults. They consider household worship, if not non-existent then at least limited. This is a false impression albeit justified if we consider that the written accounts and archaeological findings (urns, utility items, and structures) provide us with limited evidence for household worship in comparison to the vast amount of material that details the public worship [2]. It is therefore natural that the historians and other scientists will present works with references mainly pertaining to public worship. Fortunately recent efforts have been made to compile information concerning the field of the household worship of the Hellenic religion and to draw conclusions there from.


The misunderstandings that arise from the confusion between public and household worship have led some to a conception that reduces and fades the religious praxis of our ancestors to a simple conformation to the exoteric and social norms of the Polis as expressed through the public festivals and ceremonies. This produces a religious dilution of the daily family life of the Hellenes as well as limiting the understanding of the religion to the confines of the cultural parameters set by the public worship. However, the reality is completely different as essentially the public worship is an extension of the worship of the households of the clans of citizens [3].


Especially today, the primacy of household worship is determined to be absolutely necessary for those who wish to follow the religious practices of our ancestors, not only because it is from this seed that the religion may be best cultivated to re-emerge in society but it is also in the Oikos that one will not be confronted by the problems of religious discrimination which unfortunately still dominate in the Neo-Hellenic State wherein the Hellenic religion continues not to find State recognition [4].


1. The Main Gods of Household Worship

The gods which govern the religious life of the Oikos and have a permanent place therein are: Hestia, Zeus, Hermes, Hekate and Apollon. Within the Oikos these gods receive, with the exception of Hestia, specific characteristics which differ from their better known Olympian forms. These specific characteristics have the main purpose of ensuring the unity and prosperity of the Oikos.


1.1 Hestia

Hestia is the goddess who bestowed upon humanity the knowledge of the Oikos [5] therefore she is the goddess who governs the family worship. Her worship is of a primordial essence and its origins have been lost within the depths of time.


...because without Thee, mortals do not have banquets, and one does not offer the first and last libation to Hestia, of honey-scented wineHomeric Hymn No.29 to Hestia (Lines 4 - 6)


The goddess is also identified with the hearth, where the Oikos gathers to prepare food and warm themselves. Goddess and hearth comprise the sacred centre of the Oikos, with the goddess in the awareness of the mind and the hearth on the physical level [6].


The hearth thus is the actual altar of the goddess and the flame itself is the representation of the goddess. Most of the rituals of the Oikos take place at the hearth. The hearth altar of the goddess is sacred with a flame that burns perpetually [7]. As the goddess protects the members of the family, so will she protect the stranger who seeks refuge in the Oikos. It is probable that the dimension of Ikesia which provides for protection to the Iketis when touching the altar of the Polis is an extension of the operation of the hearth of the Oikos as the same rules apply in terms of asylum and miasma.


Similarly the cities have the hearth of the Polis at a sacred centre which plays the analogous role of the hearth of the Oikos [8]. Most ceremonies at home begin with the evocation of Hestia, a phenomenon which is often extended to the public worship. As a result of this, we inherit the following phrase which implies a 'good beginning [9]:


Commence from Hestia


Finally, Hestia is 'She who represents [10] the Oikos in the Polis/Community'. The destruction of the hearth constitutes the destruction of the Oikos with tragic results which extend from the ancestors to the descendents yet to be born (who are eternally bound through the household worship to the hearth of the Oikos).


1.2. Zeus Ktesios

In conjunction with the goddess of the hearth, the next god encountered in the household worship is Zeus, who bears the epithet Ktesios [11]. With this epithet, the god is worshipped as the protector of the family goods as well as 'He who takes care of the prosperity of the Oikos'.


The altar of the god during the Classic period is commonly situated in a storage area of the Oikos (frequently a separate building) where he was honoured with libations [12]. Until recently (and still today in some villages), the goods stored in such places consist mostly of food and sometimes clothing (animal skins, materials, etc) thus the worship of Zeus Ktesios is decisively natural as opposed to some modern attempts in restoring his worship in today's home storage rooms (especially in cities) which abound with rubbish, useless things and unnecessary goods. As the goods which represent the prosperity of the Oikos today have taken a different form, the worship of Zeus Ktesios may be carried forth, if we wish it, on the central altar or place of worship in the home as long as we have the necessary intellectual understanding of that which constitutes the 'goods' of our personal Oikos as they may not be identified with the current vulgar perception of money, which is nothing more than a medium of exchange [13].


According to the existing references, it is very likely that most of the time Zeus Ktesios did not have a single common altar for his worship in the Oikos but was represented and even identified with by an item known as the 'Kathiskos' (small bucket) [14]. It is our good fortune that the 3rd Century historian Anticleides (140 F22) relays not only a description of the Kathiskos but also instructions on how it is made:


It is necessary to make the symbol of Zeus Ktesios. We take a new Kathisko with two ears through which we thread white wool and yellow (crocus) thread which we take over the right shoulder so that it hangs in front we then put anything we find and ambrosia in it. Ambrosia is pure water (from a spring) and oil and all-fruit. This we put inside.Anticleides 140 F22


The existence of the Kathiskos (that constitutes the substitute for the altar), identified with Zeus Ktesios explains why Altars with epigraphs addressed to Zeus Ktesios are rarely found [15].


Finally, if the above is taken into consideration, it is reasonable to identify Zeus Ktesios with the house serpent (Oikoyro Ophi) which serves the same function as the guardian of the household goods [16] and is still found to this day within the folk tradition [17]. This conclusion is supported by the archaeological discovery of an altar dedicated to Zeus Ktesios which has a serpent depicted upon it (picture 2). The serpent remains a symbol of the Oikos and was sacred until the late Hellenistic period after which it passes into the beliefs and customs of the folk tradition.


1.3. Zeus Erkeios

The second form of Zeus that is encountered in the Hellenic household worship is that of Zeus Erkeios. The word 'erkos' refers to the fence and by implication also to the space that is fenced in. Sometimes, in Athens, the Oikos was also referred to as the Erkos and thus the two words gained a common identity. As a matter of fact, it has been passed down to us that the question "where is your house?" in ancient Athens could just as effectively be phrased as "where is your Zeus Erkeios situated?" [18]. The altar of Zeus Erkeios is placed outdoors between the house and the fence which surrounds it. The god is worshipped as the guardian of the Oikos and the property and acts in a protective manner over it. There is little known to us of the worship of Zeus Erkeios but it is safe to say that it is associated with the physical space of the Oikos and the unity of the family therein [19] which makes it relevant even today. In instances where the Oikos does not have a garden or outside space, the worship of Zeus Erkeios, as guardian, could be included on the central altar as with Hestia and Ktesios.


1.4. At the Boundaries of the Oikos: Hermes, Hekate and Apollon Agyieus

Aside from the worship of Zeus and Hestia as the central gods of the Oikos who are worshipped inside of it, there are furthermore three other gods who are included in the household worship and who protect the Oikos from external threats [20] and are thus 'placed' outside. Hence, at the outer fence of the Oikos and at the gate of the fence, the worship of Hermes, Hekate and Apollon with the epithet Agyieus [21] is placed.


Within this context, Hermes and Hekate are represented in the same forms they bear as gods of the roads; namely as a Herm (picture 3) for Hermes which determines boundaries and places and for Hekate, as the ruler of the crossroads [22]. From the few available archaeological findings and literary sources, it is possible to deduce that at each Oikos there was an altar or shrine [23] shared by the three gods situated at the outside gate of the property. This altar or shrine was the focus of the worship and it necessitated maintenance as the area and the representations (Herm, idols and a square slab for Apollon) were exposed to the road and needed to be kept clean. A more common practice was the creation of a special enclave at the entrance to the Oikos (at the fence next to the gate) wherein the idols and items of worship (incense burner, offering vessel, etc) were kept [24]. Today, in the case of apartment buildings, we could erect corresponding bas-reliefs [25] with a shelf or ledge for the purposes of worship. The act of worship here is uncomplicated and except for specific sacred days, it comprises of a simple placement of plain offerings and burning incense when we arrive at or leave our home.


1.5. Family and Ancestral Worship

As has already been mentioned, the Oikos has a broader meaning [26] and includes the ancestors especially when considering the worship aspect. Thus, when we speak of household worship, there are two distinct categories of worship: the worship of the Hearth gods (and other honoured gods) and the worship of the Ancestors. Many of the public festivals include additional festivities at home which complete the character of the celebrations.


In the household worship all members of the family are participants and each member has a role to play depending on the festival. Although the main duty for the household worship falls on the man, in reality there are more festivals for which the woman is responsible in the household worship.

Home worship is a private matter for the family although friends and other family members may be present during the ceremonies of the household worship.


2. Main Home Ceremonies

Naturally there are many different rituals which take place in the Oikos but special mention must be made of those that are referred to as the Oikiakes and are associated with three separate stages of home life.


2.1 Marriage: the commencement of the Oikos

The true commencement of an Oikos begins with marriage as the union between two people into a family. When one remains alone, unwed and childless, we do not truly have a complete Oikos or household worship (of the hearth gods) but continue to remain within the worship of the Oikos of our parents (ancestral gods) or the Phratria [27].


2.2 Birth: the continuation of the Oikos

With a birth we have an expansion of the Oikos. The new human becomes a true member of the Oikos only through the correct ceremony of introduction to the hearth gods [28]. The child will be the one who continues the household worship which is handed down by the parents.


2.3 Death: the loss of the Oikos

Death is also a transition which is associated with the household worship. The deceased, on the one hand, pollutes the Oikos and the hearth worship temporarily. On the other hand, the deceased is incorporated as an energy into the ancestral pool after the passage of a specific period of time has passed and the correct ceremonies have been performed. As an ancestor, the deceased continues to be a part of the Oikos but henceforth on the side of 'οι Πλείστοι' (the ancestral term referring to the dead whose esteem and numbers are greater than those of the living) and as such receives honour together with all the other ancestors.


3. About the Household Altar and Ceremonial Objects

Three categories of things are necessary for the needs of home worship: the hearth and the fire; the altar or altars and the rest of the ceremonial objects. Naturally with the modern design of houses, it becomes very difficult to find an architectural design that is similar to that of the Hellenic Oikos of the past (picture 4). From the moment that the functional use of the hearth was replaced by electrical appliances, it became necessary to adapt some of the characteristics of household worship without diluting the essence or meaning. Thus in a modern house the role of the hearth may be assumed by the fire place and its allocated space [29]. Even when this is not available we must remember that the truly sacred essence of the hearth is the fire itself. In ancient times there were instances where the hearth was not necessarily a built area in the house as depicted in the illustration (picture 4) and it was necessary to use some utensil to contain the fire (picture 5). Today it is important that a sacred hearth fire is maintained which will be used for the ritual needs (incense burning, etc). This may be achieved by a variety of methods. We could use a slow burning candle, the traditional votive lamp or an oil lamp, etc [30]. With this method it is possible to maintain the eternal flame of our hearth and to follow the rituals for its renewal according to the traditions [31].


As previously mentioned, for the worship of Zeus Erkeios and in the case where a courtyard is available at the house, a house altar may be built and maintained as per the ancient Classical Period (pictures 6 & 7). In this instance there must also still remain a dedicated space inside the house for the purpose of worship [32]. The solution for modern architectural limitations is presented to us from ancient times and may be put into practice today [33].


A specially prepared place inside the Oikos exists from the Hellenistic and Roman period which the members of the Oikos could use for their prayers [34]. We are fortunate to have many examples of these special places within the home through the archaeological findings in the cities destroyed by Vesuvius in Italy (Herakleia, Pompeii, etc) [35].

Examples of the Lararia home altars of the late antiquity


The indent seen in the wall is also the shrine of the house within which the sacred objects of the home worship are placed. Thus, statues of the gods, small altars, tripods of incense and fires are gathered in this dedicated space which is created if not in a separate room then at least not in a common room of the house [36]. If an indent in the wall is not possible, a wooden structure of similar design could be used to perform the same function. Even more simply, a piece of furniture (small table, etc) could be utilized, on top of which the ceremonial objects could be placed.

It is common for the needs of household worship to find a miniature altar made of clay which is placed in the centre of the collection of sacred objects. This mini-altar or xoano (idol) is the object which commonly represents the continuous home ancestral worship and it is handed down from generation to generation (picture 8).


Most of the items used for the household worship are basic household items specifically dedicated for the purposes of household worship as they serve to usher in the appropriate state of mind necessary for us to perform the act of worship. This state of mind is reached more easily when specialized objects are used within the household worship. Some of these objects are: a cleansing basin [37], the utensil for burning incense [38] and the container for libations [39], etc. It is important to mention that, for no reason whatsoever, should the products of a ceremony (ashes, offerings, libations, etc) be thrown away as if they were rubbish but they should be dispensed of in a clean space in our courtyard (at a specific spot in the courtyard in a pot plant) or in an open space in nature where they will be recycled.


4. Household Worship: The first necessary step

In the beginning of this text we emphasized the importance of household worship for the Hellenic polytheistic tradition and again it should be re-iterated that there are no excuses for not practicing the necessary ceremonies within our own homes if there are no restrictions to our religious freedom. The only thing we need is the urge to proceed.

Although the basics have been discussed in this document, in the practice we will find how much more we will understand and how much we will benefit from the religious worship itself within the peace of our own Oikos. In this manner we will successfully hand down the Hellenic beliefs to the next generation from whence they will gain the understanding necessary for the basis of the development of a pure character as well as the ability to cultivate the principles and values of our civilisation.

In closing, we must mention that if we are daunted by all the details or find difficulty following the rituals properly, it is better to begin slowly with the most simple and when we have understood it and made it our own to continue with the next [40]. We must always remember that our attitude and our willingness towards the gods and Ancestors is more important than how faithfully we follow some ritual [41]. On the other hand, it is wise to note that if we are not sure about something pertaining to the worship that it is best to first seek within the traditions and trust these ancestral customs.





Notes and References

[1] In every case and at least until the Hellenistic period, the individual is not defined outside the general framework of which he or she is a part or to which they belong, i.e. the Oikos, Phratria, Clan and Polis.
[2] Specifically pertaining to the household worship, the texts often present us with the phenomenon of using phrases such as "according to that which is known", or "according to that which is common", etc. When referring to ceremonies of household worship very few writers would take the time to describe common and everyday customs or practices.
[3] This is indicative of the point of the argument that it was the household worship that influenced the public worship and not the other way around. The proof of this is the esoteric worship which remained entrusted to certain families as their personal responsibility for the purposes of performing the ceremonies and tending to the appearance of public altars and shrines after the settlement in a Polis.
[4] The Constitution, in Greece, guarantees the freedom of religious expression on a personal level; however, within society the religion is not recognised. This essentially means that the household worship may be more completely expressed within the Oikos than the public worship of a community of people following the Hellenic Polytheistic Tradition may be expressed in a society that abounds with a plethora of problems for 'non-recognised' religions.
[5] Diodorus Sikeliotis
[6] Hesiod, for example, tells us of the behaviours we should have at the hearth of the Oikos. Without veneration for the ancestors we avoid/shun the warmth inside and inherent within the house.
[7] The ceremony of the renewal of the flame of the Oikos is one where a new flame is taken from the hearth of the Polis. This new flame will start a new fire in the hearth of the Oikos when the previous fire had been extinguished as was the custom in cases of death, miasma as well as that which is specified at certain festivals.
[8] The Hearth of the Polis of Athens was situated at the Prytaneo. The founders of the colonies would receive the flame from the Hearth of the Polis so that the new Polis would establish the sacred bond between colony and mother city.
[9] Also we may use the phrase as the saying "Αφ' εστιας άρχεσθαι κακουργείν την πόλιν" which refers to someone doing damage to the Polis from its foundations illustrating once again the importance of the hearth not only for the Oikos but also for the Polis.
[10] In this sense, a logical argument may be found for the point of view that in Athens, for example, only men voted as every Oikos was represented by one vote rather than the male-only voting existing for reasons of some other kind of discrimination.
[11] The epithet Ktesios means 'of the property and the goods of the Oikos'.
[12] The references we have for offerings made on the Altar of Zeus Ktesios are more frequently libations than sacrifices which is reasonable when the god's association with the 'Kathisko' (small bucket) is considered.
[13] Thus today, the worship of Zeus Ktesios continues in the ancestral manner in villages, etc. It is indeed so in this case as well as many other cases that we see that life outside the cities continues to remain by and large based on the ancestral customs.
[14] The Kathiskos (a small bucket) is in actual fact a common household item in the Hellenic home which is the reason why no excavations have unearthed these artifacts of Zeus Ktesios as there is no visible difference between the item of worship and the household item that would allow a Kathiskos of Zeus Ktesios to be properly identified.
[15] With the name Ktesios, Zeus is also worshipped at the public Altar.
[16] The existence of parallel realities which are associated with and reflect each other is a common belief in the religion and practical worship of the Hellenes. Unfortunately there are those who do not accept this fact and who do not believe in this specific tradition and as a result the meaning is lost to them. Thus anthropologists, ethnologists and the average modern person are quick to explain the worship of Zeus Ktesios solely through the association of the house serpent who on a physical earthly level protects, for example, the grain from rats and mice. Unfortunately for them, it is a fact that this belief acts as a valid reflection of parallel realities and there is no single identification with a sole meaning that associates the serpent with either Agathodaimon or with Zeus Ktesios.
[17] It may be safely said that the worship of Zeus Ktesios has been preserved to a great extent especially in rural areas where the serpent of the house continued to play a role in the family worship.
[18] Aristotle; Athenaion Politeia 55.3
[19] We know that the members of the Oikos who were absent from it for long periods, on their return would sacrifice on the altar of Zeus Erkeios.
[20] These three gods operate as protectors against illness, intruders and other external dangers.
[21] Of the Road
[22] We find a crossroad at the entrance to the home where we may choose any of the three directions to move towards.
[23] See note 24 for the description of a shrine.
[24] An example of this may be found in many homes in Hellas, both old and modern, where the ancestral rituals of worship were been adopted by the Christian tradition. Thus, within the Oikos and in the place of the altar or shrine of the gods, a simple Christian shrine structured in the same way may be found where Christian icons are kept.
[25] We remind the reader that a two dimensional depiction (e.g. a painting) is common as decoration in the Hellenic religion but for worshipping purposes only the three dimensional depictions are acceptable (i.e. statues, friezes and general objects with depth).
[26] A characteristic fact is that slaves very often participated in the household worship. Even more characteristic is the fact that when a new slave was bought and introduced into the house for the first time, a sacrifice was made at the home so that the slave would be recognised as a member of the family. Many scholars translate this as the entry of an object into the Oikos which belongs to the Oikos. This idea is taken further by them when they attach the same meaning to the entry into the Oikos by a bride. The acceptance of the bride or the acquisition of a slave as objects within the Oikos is a perception with which we disagree as surely the participation of an object would not further be included in the future sacred rites of household worship as both brides and slaves did.
[27] It is common that the woman would leave her household worship to be a part of her husbands (responsibilities) when she married especially in Athenian customs although this was not a necessity.
[28] This is why birth brings temporary miasma to the Oikos
[29] Naturally, in this case, a functioning fireplace is necessary where a fire would be maintained (at least in winter) and would be used from time to time to cook the food.
[30] We must make sure that the candle is of natural wax without chemical contents and the oil to be pure oil and not some kind of petroleum.
[31] The meaning of the flame in the worship has a huge importance not only in the home.
[32] In the home we find altars in two places. One commonly found in the central room of the house and in a prominent place - built and large - and the other in a specially prepared room for the religious needs of the family which is entered only by the members of the Oikos.
[33] It is impressive how many characteristics of household worship have remained unchanged through the centuries and even through the advent of a different religion. For example, christianity followed the external characteristics in the establishment of the shrine in the home. Also the existence of unbroken polytheistic customs which achieve the same in this subject, e.g. the Hindus show us clearly the manner in which a house is adopted for the purpose of worship.
[34] In the older times there existed a special place aside from the hearth which could not be reconstructed by archaeology as it was rarely built in later times.
[35] A depiction of serpents is commonly observed as we have mentioned previously. The Roman household shrine is known as a Lararium.
[36] In the cases where this space cannot be set aside from the common rooms of the Oikos we may use curtains which will protect the shrine and which we will only open when we perform a ceremony.
[37] In Classical antiquity an object known as the 'louteras' was used in all cleansing ceremonies and was a basic item of household worship.
[38] Small tripods, commonly found for sale, are used for the lighting of incense.
[39] Any clean utensil may be used for this purpose although we can use a clay copy of an urn. Care must be taken that the urn has not been through any chemical processes, etc. A libation may be just a drop on our clay altar or we may use a separate container for normal libations.
[40] It would be irrational for a newcomer to our ancestral religion to begin observing the auspicious days when they have not yet managed to obtain the correct mental state for a ceremony.
[41] It is important to note that the set rituals are necessary to guide us as it is difficult for us to accept that someone would have the ability to reform the practical ceremonies of worship successfully purely by relying on their own information and without previous experience or long term involvement.