Domestic Religion


I’ve been reading a book entitled The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges from Dover books. Its a reprint of an 1864 french book. The author relied solely on ancient texts and inscription, usually given in the footnotes. As is typical of the time, many of the quotes are in the original language, cuz educated people would be able to read them anyway…

The book is an interesting discussion of the religion, traditions, and customs of the ancient city and its peoples.

One important point, which some orgs today have forgotten was that the city was a late development. It evolved as a federation. The Fustel traces to organic development of this federation over time. This kind of evolution is perhaps a good model for us to emulate in attempting to form larger groups.

The roots of the city lay in religion, and Fustel discusses the religious basis of the city and its centrality to the city, and the intermixture of religion and life. It is this that is the key to the development of the ancient city.

It all starts with domestic religion. The family had its own religion with its own gods, the household gods, and the ancestors of the family. (I think we today tend to forget the importance of ancestor veneration in the ancient world, which rivals that of the Confucian East). The head of household is the priest of the family, and the family maintains the sacred fire. Each is independent of anyone else’s interference; and is the focus of the day-to-day religious life.

Over time, families began to unite, but kept their separate domestic faiths, but formed clans…phratries or curies, with their own gods and patrons, and their own chief priest, who tended worship at the sacred fire. Then several clans came together to form tribes, or phyles, also with its own separate sacred fire and priest, often called phyle king in Greece. At regular intervals, the citizens would, as at Apaturia, join with the others of their phratrie/curia, or phyle/tribu for a communal meal, sacrifice, and to sing prayers and hymns.

Finaly, at the end, the tribes were united by one man, or in the face of danger from outside. The city was founded by the founder or legislator, who established laws, lit the hearth of the city, and chose the national gods of the city, who were its protectors, as each tribe had their deified hero, and each clan and family had its ancestors and household gods.

The founder was the first king, later replaced by non-kingly prutaneis, basileis. But these kept the sacred fire and led the sacred rituals in the king’s stead. (Indeed Fustel mentions that Prytane, was a synomyn for Basileus in the ancient texts). They also met for a communal meal shared with the gods at the prytaneum every month along with selected citizens to reinforce the bond of the people.

This development is organic, and it flows naturally. I think a major problem with many Hellenic (and Religio) groups was that we jumped right away to the city, setting up magistrates, and prutaneis, going straight to the city-state model, then setting up demoi (again a more political organization, though also religious, being a sort of mini polis).

Instead focusing on helping people form their own domestic cultus, and then uniting them into equivalents of the gentes and phratries (perhaps by common interests), and then into tribes would make sense (perhaps haveing tribes being of geographic determination, which was often the case, with the 10 tribes of Athens, and the 34 tribes of Rome)…and having the tribes with their demes and wards then establish a national city-state, and evolve that way would have produced more stable situations, and allowed for more growth rather than trying to force a national organization on a group as small and scattered as the Greco-Roman Classical Pagan communities.

Additionally, one advantage of the organic development model is that people with like interests, or similar deity foci, could form something like a phratry or a clan, which could form geographic tribes with other phratries. I realize that some have formed thiasoi along these lines, and perhaps the thiasoi or phratries could be the organic base that grows into other orgs, which form a federation or umbrella organization.

That would probably take more diplomacy than we normally see in our community, but I think this would be workable.

The interesting element of the book was that it emphasized how much the phratries and phyles (clans and tribes) were mini-federations of their own, with the lower levels being more or less autonous, with the higher levels being a bit more diversified as to the deities worshipped.

This federations of federations would allow for more distinctiveness and personal preferences to matter more…without forcing everyone into a single mold, which seems to be part of the problem we have. Some folks seem to have little interest in normally going beyond their particular deity of interest (or patron, if you will). This way, each level could meet irregularly (the phyles and phratries met fairly often, but less often the farther one went up), for their communal meals. Apatouria for instance fell once a year, though I’m sure there were other meetings of the phratry. The Spartan phratries met twice a month, the rest of the time they were at home eating.

Then there were the city-state level festivals to various protective deities for the city, usually one per year for each. While each phyle and phratry had their own deities whom they worshipped.

I think most of us could deal with that sort of set up, and it could reduce interaction and frictions in some ways, while still promoting community. Perhaps all the members of these levels in a geographic area could meet regularly, phyle and phratry by phyle and phratry at a regular interval independent of the local demos, or the national polis structure, as those arise.

Thus these would grow organically, by say patron deity, with organic meetings regionally and nationally by all interested in that deity, and eventually allying with other phratries/phyles/thiasoi, in larger regional agglomerations…which could eventually unite into a larger national org…rather than forming national orgs which one joins and then get assigned to local orgs by fiat by the national level.

Let everything begin at the family level, then by interest locally.


One Response to Domestic Religion

  1. Pingback: Domestic Religion « WiccanWeb

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